“He said it would be fun,” I grumbled. “He said it would be a good experience. I’m going to damn well show him a good experience.”
I knew I would never do any such thing. Despite the stickiness on my shirt and arms, and the headache brewing around my temples, I wasn’t going to do anything to get back at Chief Mertz.
The last period hadn’t been so bad. Though there had been little interest shown to anything I’d had to say. I had to take a different approach with them. Some of them would be old enough to join the Explorer program in another year or two. So, I started with that. And drew some interest. From one kid in particular.
“My dad’s a firefighter,” she told me after lifting her hand in the air.
I smiled at her. They all had name tags for the presentation, and hers read “Madison Truman.”
“Would that be Darin Truman?” I asked her.
She nodded, a shy smile on her face. “I know him,” I told her. “He works with my brother. My brothers, and my sister, and me all got involved in the volunteer fire department when we weren’t much older than you all.” I saw I’d caught their attention with that.
One of the other kids rose his hand. “My uncle says volunteers aren’t real firefighters.”
“Who’s your uncle?” I asked, trying to keep my voice level.
“Caleb Hallows,” he said, inching his chin up a notch.
That didn’t surprise me. That man had very particular, and intense, thoughts about anyone who wasn’t just like him. “Yes, my brother works with him as well.” I didn’t say more than that. They were just kids, and didn’t need to hear my thoughts on that man or anything he thought.
After going through what the Explorer program was all about, I handed out pencils and other items I’d been given and got out of there. Thankfully without any more degrading comments about what I did.
Before that, the fifth grade classes I spoke to had been more interested in how the trucks worked. That wasn’t something I could give a lot of information on, though I knew the basics. I lost their interest rather quickly, and I think that was about the time I really noticed the headache.
The fourth graders had been more interested in my ‘battle stories’, especially the boys. I’d been going through one recent one when another hand went up. “That was my grandpa’s house,” the girl said.
I shifted to look at her. Her eyes looked serious and a bit sad. “I’m sorry about that. It wasn’t a complete loss.” My lips twitched a bit. “I know the construction company who came in to restore what was destroyed.” I should know it. It was my father’s company.
The third graders, though, held a particular happy spot in my mind. I’d walked in to the classroom in my full turnout gear. That hadn’t stopped me from losing my breath when I saw one of the teachers standing in the front of the room. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen her. She’d come to my art showing just a week before. With my older brother.
I hadn’t had any idea she’d be here, but I tried to keep my attention on the kids. Still, it kept straying back to her. She was dressed differently today than she had been that night. Of course she was working now, not on a date. But, she still struck me hard. Suddenly the heavy coat felt like it was just weighing me down. The harness for the air pack felt like it was cutting into me. None of that was really the case, and I’d never had an issue wearing the gear before.
I took off my helmet and handed it to one of the boys sitting on the floor in front of me. I smiled, recognizing that boy. Even though Finn hadn’t recognized me yet. As the kids started trying it on and passing it around, I saw cameras flash. Getting pictures of the kids, I thought. Probably to go in the candid section of the yearbook or something.
I pulled off the mask next and set it on the table beside me. Finally I could draw in some air. Then, I heard a gasp from near the teachers and it sucked right back out. I lifted my gaze and saw her staring right back at me. She was sincerely shocked to see me there. I had to remind myself that she was involved with my older brother. Nothing could happen there.
Then, from the corner of my eye, I saw Finn jump up. “Uncle Jace,” he cried, running toward me. “I didn’t know that was you.”
I wrapped one arm around the boy and from a squatting position, put him on my knee. “It’s me, all right. Which one’s your teacher?” I asked as another camera flashed.
“Ms. Yates,” he said, pointing to the woman who had stepped forward. The one I had barely been able to take my gaze from.
She smiled at us, but I could see it wobbled a bit. “Well, aren’t the two of you a sight? This is your uncle, Finn?”
The boy nodded then shrugged. “Well, almost. He will be when Nolan marries my mommy. He even said I can call him Daddy then.”
“Ah, yes,” Ms. Yates said, “the infamous Nolan.”
I chuckled at that. “There may be a bit of hero worship going on there. Though Nolan doesn’t care for that term.”
“Just doing my job,” Finn said seriously then started laughing. “That’s what he always says, isn’t it, Uncle Jace?”
“It sure is,” I said, laughing as I ruffled his hair. “You going back to class now?”
“No, lunch.” Finn glanced over at his teacher. “Can Uncle Jace eat lunch with us, Ms. Yates?”
“He might have another presentation to get to,” she said, not even looking at me. I thought I’d caught something in her eyes, but that couldn’t be. She was with Kelan. Or at least she had been a couple weeks ago.
“Actually, I’ve got a break coming up,” I told her. “I’d love to have lunch with you.” Then, I realized what I’d said and added, “With Finn.”
Before that, I’d done back to back presentations giving very similar information on fire drills and how to get out of a building during a fire to first and second graders. I answered their questions afterward, but those were simple. And before that was a joint presentation to the pre-k and kindergarten classes on when and how to call for help. And cookies and punch after that was over. Which was how I had gotten all sticky thanks to hugs from some of the smallest students. It dried on my skin and was probably going to take more than one scrubbing to get it all off.
I knew when Chief Mertz came to me and asked for a favor I should have just turned him down flat. I was going to have to remember that the next time I heard those words out of his mouth. Although it hadn’t been the worst experience of my life.
If only Ms Yates wasn’t already involved with my older brother.