Joe arrived at Pocumtuck several days earlier than the rest of the staff so he could familiarize himself with the area and spend time with the headmaster. While the school's location was picturesque, he found the area much too quiet after being in Manhattan for the last few years. Pocumtuck looked stately enough, nestled in the rolling fields behind Deerfield Academy, but once you left campus, there wasn't much to look at other than the scenery and, unless you were an avid bicyclist, virtually nothing to do. South Deerfield, a town of less than 5,000 people, was even smaller than Bayport. The center of town had a few small restaurants, a gas station, and two small convenience stores. The library, open four days a week and looking smaller than his parents' house, appeared to be the social center of town. It was unnervingly rural and quaint.
On his second day, Headmaster Whitman gave him a tour of the campus. All the academic buildings were wheelchair-accessible, with wide hallways and large windows, and were equipped with enough electronics to make Joe's head spin. He figured he'd have to pry Frank out of the school with a crowbar once this assignment was over; it had more computer gadgets than he had known even existed. The classrooms formed a ring around the student residences, which, Whitman explained, each housed eight students and two houseparents.
"We try to keep the ratio of boys to girls even, so no one feels outnumbered." He flashed a deprecating smile. "Some years we do better than others. Each student has his or her own room. The bathrooms are shared."
"What about me and Frank?" Joe asked.
Whitman opened a door at the front of the house. "As houseparents, you get a suite, two rooms with a common living room. When the houseparents are a couple, they generally use one of the rooms as a bedroom and the other as an office. I don't imagine you'll be doing that."
Joe smiled. "Probably not." He surveyed the campus from the picture window. With the trees and gentle grassy slopes, it looked idyllic... until he started looking for places where people could hide unseen. The smile faded from his lips. "Mr. Whitman, do you really think Sunny is in any danger?"
"Kay seems to think..."
"With all due respect, sir, I know what Dr. Park thinks. I want to know what you think."
The man's eyes flickered to the window. "Well, Mr. Hardy..."
"Miller," Joe interrupted.
"It'll help if you start calling me Mr. Miller. Or just Joe." At the man's surprised glance, he continued. "I don't imagine you're that formal with your gym teacher, and there's less of a chance of your slipping and calling me by the wrong name if you start now."
Whitman shook his head, looking momentarily bewildered. "You're right. Forgive me... Joe. This is... This is something I've never experienced." He took a deep breath, his gaze moving to the window. "I've known Kay for years. She's a scientist, a well-respected one, and not known for flights of fancy." When he turned back, Joe saw his eyes were troubled. "Since John's death, she's been... different. More protective of Sunny, more apt to see trouble where there isn't any. That said, she is frightened about these nuclear tests." He let out another breath. "I don't know how much you know about Kay's father."
Joe spread his hands in front of him. "Nothing. Science and politics are more Frank's areas than mine."
"Hunh-Bin Park was a genius." The man's voice was matter-of-fact, as if he were discussing the weather. "The family lore is that he brought the North Korean nuclear project into the twentieth century almost single-handedly. When they escaped to the south, the Soviets were furious." Whitman frowned. "While I find it hard to believe someone would try to harm Sunny to get to his notes, it is within the realm of possibility. North Korea's consistent lack of success in launching a missile is a source of embarrassment to their government. With their new leader..." His voice trailed off, and the troubled look returned to his eyes. "John was one of my closest friends in college. If having you here can ensure the safety of his daughter..."
"I see." Joe cleared his throat. "Mr. Whitman..."
This time it was Whitman's turn to interrupt. "Headmaster." His lips quirked up into a small smile. "We both have names we need to get used to."
"Headmaster," Joe started again. "I'm going to need to put up some surveillance cameras around campus." Whitman's eyes widened. "Not in any of the student rooms. Just a few trained on the doors of this house and some of the common areas. I need to be able to keep an eye on who is coming and going from campus. I can promise they won't be obvious."
The headmaster regarded Joe for a long minute. "When Kay approached me about bringing you and your brother on campus, I did some investigating of my own." Joe held his breath. "A former colleague of mine worked with your father many years ago. She said if you two were anything like him, I would be a fool not to allow you on my campus." Joe felt his shoulders relax. "Install what cameras you need; I will make sure you get access to the school's CCTV as well."
The day before the students moved in, Whitman asked the new staff to meet in his office for a short orientation session. Busy with the finishing touches to his security system, Joe wandered in a few minutes late. Rather than interrupting, he stood in the doorway for a moment, taking the opportunity to observe the other new arrivals.
Ekaterina Mikhalychenko, the math instructor, looked bored. She had just graduated from college last spring, and as near as Joe could tell, wasn't thrilled about the prospect of teaching. At least not teaching children, but he knew that without at least a master's degree, elementary education at a private school was her only option. On the other hand, he thought, remembering her look of utter boredom when he was introduced to her, she doesn't seem to be thrilled about anything else either. While other staff members had spent the past few days moving into their rooms, renewing friendships or introducing themselves to the new staff, and doing touristy things – visiting Yankee Candle or the nearby Emily Dickinson Homestead – Ekaterina had stayed in her room, her face buried in a laptop or a cell phone attached to her ear. She didn't appear to have any interest in making friends on staff or even making small talk with anyone.
The other new staff members were a married couple, Phillip and Melissa Chang. Phillip, the computer instructor, was ethnic Chinese and appeared to be in his mid-thirties. From his sunglasses and the long white cane he carried, it was obvious he was blind, but Joe couldn't tell if it was a partial or total blindness. His accent indicated he was Chinese-born and hadn't been in the US very long. He leaned forward, seemingly captivated by Whitman's words. Melissa – English and reading instruction – was an American in her late twenties and appeared shy and self-conscious. She shifted constantly from side to side in her motorized wheelchair. She wore horn-rimmed glasses and clothes that were too big for her frame. Either she's lost a lot of weight recently, or she's uncomfortable with her looks. Joe couldn't tell if she was listening to the speech or not.
Once Frank arrived, there would be five new staff members, and Joe found himself wondering if it was normal for a school this size to replace half its staff at the beginning of the school year. I'll check with Headmaster about it later.
Whitman cleared his throat, and Joe realized he had been so busy scrutinizing the others that he hadn't noticed the headmaster had seen him standing there. "Please, join us, Mr. Miller. As you know, each 'pod' consists of eight students and two instructors..."
"Wait," Joe interrupted with a laugh, as he walked in and took the empty chair between Ekaterina and Melissa, "we're pod people?"
Ekaterina shot him a withering look, contempt evident in her ice-blue eyes. She pushed honey-blonde hair from her shoulders, her lips forming a word Joe couldn't make out; he wasn't even sure if it was in English. Possibly Russian, he thought, and probably an insult. On impulse, he winked at her, watching with a sense of amusement as she turned ever-so-slightly to avoid his eyes. He grinned, using the opportunity to examine her again. She had no visible disability like Phillip and Melissa, and he wondered if she suffered from something like he – or rather, Joe Miller – was supposed to have.
The headmaster laughed. "Not pod people in that sense, Joe," he said. "More like a seed pod; knowledge blooming all over." Joe nodded, and Whitman continued. "I've got a list for each of with the names and grades of all the students in your house." He handed Joe, Ekaterina, and Melissa a paper list – Phillip got a DVD – then turned to Ekaterina. "If you have any questions about your group, Claire should be able to fill you in. All of yours are returnees. Phillip, you and Melissa should go over your list this afternoon. The two of you have ended up with the most new students this year. Feel free to ask me if you need any additional information."
Joe looked over his list and raised his hand. "Wait, so far, I'm the only adult in my house... pod... whatever you call it. Does that mean I get eight kids to myself? That doesn't seem fair."
"Your co-house parent is arriving later this weekend. His name is Frank Tennison." Joe was interested to see Phillip start at Whitman's announcement but had to look back as the headmaster continued. "The pods eat together, spend study halls and free periods together, and participate in group activities like field trips to local attractions – Historic Deerfield or the Smith College Art Museum. You can coordinate with other houseparents to combine trips if you would like."
"Houseparents," Joe muttered. "Just like the Harry Potter books. Does that make me Madam Hooch?" This earned a brief, brilliant smile from Melissa Chang.
Up until this moment, Melissa had seemed nervous, her cinnamon-colored eyes darting between her husband's face and a spot somewhere over the headmaster's right shoulder, one hand threading through a lock of her light brown hair. Joe smiled back at her, noting with interest both her immediate blush when she saw his eyes on her and the fact that while Phillip wore a thick, white gold wedding band on the third finger of his left hand, Melissa's left hand was ringless. He filed the information away for further investigation.
The meeting ended soon after. Once the others had left, Joe asked Whitman about the number of new staff. The headmaster seemed surprised by the question. "It's not normal to need this many new staff members, but it's not unheard of," he said. "Not everyone is suited to teach at a residential school. Sometimes other opportunities arise." A small smile played at the corners of his lips. "In this case, we had one instructor who decided to go back to graduate school, and two couples who were starting families."
"So you needed to hire people quickly?"
Whitman nodded. "Again, unusual, but not unheard of. It happens at all schools at one time or another."
Joe let out a breath. "Headmaster, how well do you know the returning staff?"
"They've been here since Pocumtuck started, why?"
"So, you trust them?"
Whitman's head jerked up, his eyes narrowing. "Implicitly. Why?" A sharp edge became evident in his voice.
Joe spread his hands. "Headmaster, if we're going to keep Sunny safe, we need to look at all scenarios. We'll need to see the personnel files on everyone who works here, especially of the new staff."
"The CORI checks came back fine on everyone and all of their references were impeccable."
"I understand that sir, but we'll need to check them anyway." Joe made sure to keep his voice level.
The headmaster stared at him for a moment, then finally nodded, his shoulders sagging slightly. "I'll see that you get them."
"Thank you." Joe stood and put his hand on the doorknob. "I know this isn't easy." He flashed a grin at Whitman. "With any luck, the worst thing that happens is, come November, you'll have to find a new gym teacher and librarian.
Whitman shook his head, and gave Joe a crooked smile. "Wonderful," he said. "Something to look forward to."
Joe laughed. "We aim to please."
The next morning the students arrived, and by the end of the day, all Joe wanted was to go back to his room, lock the door, and fall asleep in front of some mindless television. With no kids anywhere in sight. No, he thought, what I really want is to go home, wrap Kara in my arms, and then fall asleep in front of the TV. It had only been a few days since he'd seen her, and he wasn't sure he was going to make it through a full week, never mind until November. The few times Joe had been able to call, he had only gotten her voice mail. Not even being able to talk to her left him frustrated beyond belief. That's it. After this, no more undercover work. Well, at least no more long-term undercover work.
He sighed, feeling a tightness in his shoulder. His back was sore from helping the kids carry in all their belongings, his right hand ached from having been shaken by all the parents – some of the kids came with two sets. He had been interested to see that Sunny arrived by herself, driving an older model Honda that she parked in one of the school lots and emptied without asking for assistance. Joe had been grateful for that as it meant he didn't have to make nice to Dr. Park and it let him concentrate on trying to memorize as many of the names and faces of the other parents as he could. Not in my skill set, but since Robot Man's not back from Paris yet... He rolled his eyes internally as he stifled a yawn, aware of the forty or so sets of eyes on him. Gotta love eating with an audience.
His gaze wandered to the five tables set up in the dining hall and the students seated at them, all apparently chattering away while shooting furtive glances at the new teachers. Each table had ten chairs – four on each side, filled with students, and two empty ones at each table's ends. For tonight's opening dinner, the teachers sat at a long head table at the front of the room. Starting tomorrow at breakfast, though, the head table would disappear, and the staff would be sitting with the students.
A loud metallic clanging noise in the dining hall wrenched Joe from his thoughts. Someone had entered the dining hall, managing somehow to trip over something Joe couldn't see, and sent a tray of silverware crashing to the floor. He leaned forward, craning his neck to see over the students many of whom were now standing or craning their necks from their wheelchairs to look at the new arrival with interest and barely-disguised mirth. The figure unfurled from the floor, handfuls of forks and knives in his hands, eyes cast down to the floor, his face flushed with embarrassment.
"I'm, uh, sorry. I didn't mean... I didn't want... I was trying..." The man looked timid, almost fragile, with messy brown hair covering his black, heavy glasses. He wore an ill-fitting long-sleeved shirt and tie despite the summer heat and seemed uncomfortable being the center of attention. He brushed a nervous hand through his hair, revealing a hearing aid tucked behind his left ear, then resettled the glasses on his nose with a surprisingly familiar gesture.
Joe's mouth dropped open, and he shook his head in disbelief as he leaned forward with everyone else. He had never seen Frank look so... so clumsy and unsure of himself. Damn, 'bro, he thought, you are good at this. He leaned back in his chair and took another bite of his dinner as Whitman introduced Frank to the students then brought him around the table to meet the other staff members.
He watched as the older teachers smiled and shook Frank's hand, welcoming him to the school. Kyle Johnson, the current events instructor, nearly fell out of his wheelchair as a high-pitched electronic squeal rang through the room, and Joe chuckled around his food as he watched Frank clap one hand to his left ear, make a quick adjustment to the hearing aid, and stammer out an apology. The hell with pictures, Joe thought, I'm going to need to get video of this, or no one's going to believe me. Ekaterina rolled her eyes and shook her head before moving her gaze back to her dinner. Melissa looked as if she was trying to sink further in her chair, and Phillip gripped Melissa's arm tightly, leaning in and whispering to her once Frank had passed. Interesting...
When the headmaster got to Joe, he was ready. He put a lazy grin on his face, stood, and clapped Frank solidly on the shoulder, knowing the students in his pod were watching closely. "Nice entrance, man. No way the kids are going to forget tonight."
Frank stumbled back a step. "Yeah," he said, lowering his gaze to the floor. He adjusted his glasses again. "My mother always said I had two left feet."
"The built-in burglar alarm's a nice touch, too." Joe nodded towards the hearing aid and watched as Frank's cheeks turned red. He sighed, trying to figure out how his brother managed that, then shook his head and rolled his eyes, noticing that he had somehow managed to gain another inch or so of height over his brother. "Come on, Tennison. I'll give you the tour of the pod." Frank nodded and followed him from the room.
Once the door to the residence was shut behind them, Frank straightened up and stretched. "That feels better."
Joe flopped down on the couch, his left leg starting to bounce slightly. "I don't get how you can do that to yourself. It looks painful."
Frank simply shrugged. "It just takes practice."
"Did you have a good trip?"
"Fine. Anna says 'hi.'" Frank's eyes swept over the set of rooms. "So, two bedrooms, common living room, shared bathroom. Not bad. What have you set up so far?"
Joe rolled his eyes as he shook his head. "You're in Paris for the weekend, and all I get is 'Anna says hi'? 'Bro, you've got to do better than that. Did you take her to the Eiffel Tower, or did you just spend the weekend at museums?"
"Later." Frank put a hand out. "Did you get the phones?"
"Yeah. Convenience store in the center of town." Joe walked into his room and came out carrying a small cell phone, which he tossed to Frank. "And that's about all there is in town. A couple of pizza places, a Chinese restaurant – don't eat there, by the way. The mom-and-pop breakfast place is pretty good, though. They do great pancakes..." He walked over to the small refrigerator, took out a bottle of iced tea, and removed the cap.
"Terrific," Frank interrupted, "when I get hungry, I'll let you know." He flipped the phone open and examined it carefully. "What can you tell me about the staff?"
Joe took a swig of tea. "Aren't you at all interested in the rural paradise we've found ourselves in?"
Frank raised an eyebrow at him. "I'll take a tour in the morning. We're going to have an audience in a few minutes, so get me up to speed."
"Fine. Whatever." Joe filled him in on what he knew of the other teachers, concentrating on describing the other new arrivals, especially Ekaterina and Phillip. "He seemed kind of freaked out when Whitman said your name. Did you recognize him?"
"He didn't look familiar," Frank answered, his eyes narrowing as he spoke. "Interesting, though. Russian and Chinese? I wonder how much of coincidence that is..."
"Just 'cause those countries have been North Korea's two major backers over the years?" Joe caught Frank's startled glance from the corner of his eye. "What? I pay attention to the news."
"Remind me to send Kara flowers when we get home. I'm sure this is her doing." He let out a breath. "How about the kids? I saw Sunny at one of the tables. Were those ours?"
Joe pulled a folded piece of paper from his pocket and handed it to Frank. "Yeah. Short bios are on this. Whitman said he'd get me the names of the rest of the kids tomorrow. He wanted us to get to know ours first."
Frank unfolded the paper. Eight names, each followed by a paragraph or two of description, were typed on the page. There looked to be an even mix of boys and girls. Sunny – the only senior in the group – was the oldest. The other girls – Jennifer Smith, Gwendolyn McIver, and Anala Patel were in sixth, eighth, and tenth grades respectively. Jeff and Kevin Carter – twins from the looks of it – were in seventh grade, and Stefan Malik was a ninth grader. Benjamin Jardinier, the youngest of the group, was in fifth grade. Benjamin was mute, two of the other students were in wheelchairs, one was legally blind, and the rest seemed to have serious learning disabilities.
The sounds of voices, feet, and wheels came closer to the house. Frank tucked his cell phone in his shirt pocket, handed the list back to Joe, and hunched his shoulders back down. "I think we're on. You ready?"
Joe pushed a finger into his brother's face. "Once the kids are in bed, you need to give me details about Paris." Then he shrugged his shoulders and walked over to the door. "Here goes nothing," he said as he threw it open. "House meeting," he yelled over the din of incoming students. "Now."
A small, dark-skinned blur ran into the room, launching itself at Frank, hands flying. Frank stumbled backwards, his hands moving defensively in front of his chest. "Um... Sorry... I don't understand..." The boy's hands stilled, his face taking on a look of surprise, then mild contempt. Frank looked down and swallowed. "I, uh, never learned sign language. My parents wanted me to read lips."
The boy snorted and turned his back on Frank, his hands moving slowly under his chin.
Joe cuffed the boy lightly on the head. "Benjamin, right?" The boy's dark eyes looked up at him suspiciously, one hand making specific formations. "Okay, Benj, then. You need to apologize. That was rude."
Benj's eyes widened, a small smile forming on his face. He made a few gestures in front of Joe.
"I don't even want to know where you learned language like that." Benj's eyes grew wide as Joe knelt down in front of him. "Mr. Tennison, here, might not know sign, but I do." Joe sighed theatrically, throwing a wicked look at Frank. "It's not his fault his parents didn't think it was important."
Benj turned to Frank, made a fist, then moved it in a half-hearted circle in front of his chest. Once that was done, he turned back to Joe, his hands flying again.
"I dated a deaf girl in college. Trying to make sure I had paper all the time got old. And call me Joe. Mr. Miller makes me feel like you're talking to my father." The boy smiled and wandered off to visit with one of the older boys.
Frank gave Joe a level gaze. "You know sign language?"
Joe laughed. "What can I say? I have hidden depths." He turned to the students. "All right. Sit!"
The meeting was short. Joe went over the house rules with the students, then got himself another iced tea while they introduced themselves. Frank stayed mostly in the background until the very end of the meeting when Joe forced him to stand and say something to the group. After stammering through a few sentences about himself, he backed away quickly, tripping over the long, white cane belonging to one of the twins and crashing heavily into Joe. The bottle of iced tea slipped from Joe's hand, spilling the drink down the front of his shirt.
"Hey!" Joe gasped as the cold liquid soaked through the thin fabric and hit his skin. "Geez, Tennison, can't you watch where you're walking?"
"I'm sorry... I didn't mean..." Frank cowered in front of Joe as the students watched open-mouthed from the floor.
As soon as Frank stepped back, Sunny jumped to her feet, her hands clenched into fists. "Don't t.. talk to him that way. It w.. was an accident."
"Whatever." Joe glared at her, then turned to Frank. "Don't freak out on me, man. Just get a towel or something." He peeled the wet shirt off, keeping it pressed to his chest to keep the tea from running down into his pants, and turned to the kids. "Okay, meeting's over. Move along." He waved his hands at them. "Nothing to see here. Everybody out." Slowly, the room emptied. Once the last student filed out, Joe shut the door. "What did you do that for?" he asked, a note of complaint in his voice. "I liked that shirt."
Frank came out of the bathroom, a towel in his outstretched hand. "Why?"
Joe shrugged. "It's comfortable, and it fits Joe Miller's personality." He wiped tea from his chest. "You didn't answer the question, though."
"Setting the stage. The kids need to think we don't like each other," Frank said. "We won't be effective if they see us as a unit. I don't think we need to actively hate each other. Mild contempt will work. Oh, and you might want to watch your tone with the kids. We're supposed to be mentoring them, not bullying them."
"Right," Joe said. "I'll apologize in the morning." He took one more swipe with the towel. "You're not planning on making this a regular thing, are you? Spilling stuff on me, I mean."
Frank yawned and shook his head. "I'll attempt to restrain my more creative impulses in the future. Right now, I need to turn in." Joe gave his brother a puzzled look. "Jet lag. If I'm taking over a school library tomorrow, I need sleep." He headed to one of the bedrooms. "See you in the morning."
It was still dark when Joe felt something shaking his shoulder. "Go away," he muttered into his pillow.
"Joe." Frank's voice was in his ear. "Something's wrong with one of the kids."
Joe was instantly awake. "What?"
"It sounds like one of the boys is having a nightmare." There were dark circles under Frank's eyes. "You need to go check."
Frank rubbed his eyes, and Joe could see how exhausted his brother looked. "I'm supposed to be deaf. It'd be hard to explain how I heard noise at the end of the hallway from here."
"Right." Joe swung his feet off the side of the bed. "I'll take care of it." He watched as Frank ran a hand across his forehead, swaying on his feet. "Go back to sleep, 'bro. You look like you need it."
Frank nodded and disappeared back into his room.
Joe pulled on a shirt as he walked down the hall to the boys' wing of the house. Distressed moans and muffled words in a language he didn't recognize grew louder as he approached the last room on the hall. He pushed the door open to find Benj crying and tangled in his bedclothes, shouting out unintelligible words in his sleep.
He knelt by the child's bed, placing his hands on Benj's arms. "Benj, wake up. Come on, kid, it's just a dream. Wake up. Everything's all right." Gently, he started untangling the sleeping boy from the sheets wound tightly around his small body. "It's okay. You're safe. It's just a dream."
Slowly the boy's eyes opened, his cries subsiding as he became aware of his surroundings. He took a deep, shaky breath, then burst into silent tears, throwing his arms around Joe's neck. Joe froze for a moment, unsure of what to do, then he tightened his arms around Benj's back and rubbed the boy's head. A noise from the door caught his attention.
"Let m.. me." Sunny stood in the doorway. At Joe's puzzled expression, she continued. "Jeff g.. got me. Benj has these a lot." When Joe didn't move, her expression grew annoyed. "I c.. can take c.. care of him." She crossed her arms over her chest.
"It's okay. You can go back to your room," Joe said. Sunny narrowed her eyes, and Joe felt himself getting defensive. "He's okay. Aren't you, buddy?"
Benj wiped his eyes and nodded. /Yeah. I'm sorry./
"No need to apologize. Right, Sunny?"
The girl glared at Joe, the turned to Benj, her gaze softening. "You sure, k.. kidlet?" When Benj nodded, she uncrossed her arms and nodded. "P.. pancakes for breakfast?" Benj answered with a blinding smile. "Okay," she said. As she spoke, her left hand formed the sign for 'I love you.' She smiled when Benj returned the sign to her, then nodded and left the room.
Joe straightened out the sheets and tucked Benj back in. "Can you go back to sleep?"
/Yeah./ He reached up for Joe's hand. /Thank you./
"Any time." Joe put his hand on Benj's shoulder. "Do you want me to stay until you're asleep?" Benj nodded, a look of relief on his face. "I'll keep you safe, buddy." Within minutes, the boy's breathing had slowed and deepened, his eyes closing peacefully. Joe sat with him for a while, worried about the violence of the dream and wanting to make sure the nightmare didn't return. The last time he had seen someone react that strongly to a dream had been Frank in the months after his recovery from Hansen's basement. If Benj had these dreams often... What happened to this kid? Joe thought, laying a hand on the boy's head. Finally, he stood and went back to his room, resolving to talk to the headmaster in the morning.