"Are you fucking kidding me?"
It was Monday morning, and Jake stood in front of Margaret's desk with his arms crossed. His signature effervescent smile was replaced by a dour scowl.
Margaret rubbed the back of her neck nervously. Might as well own it. "Eughh..."
"That's the problem? THAT is the big problem that you texted me about in the wee hours of Sunday morning?"
Margaret nodded and regretted sending the text message for the umpteenth time that morning.
"Unbelievable." Matthews looked at her incredulously. "You're sleeping with your story. Un-fucking-believable. Vince is going to kill you."
She swallowed. Hard. "I really don't think that'll happen."
"And then he'll fire you."
"Oh, for Chrissake, Matthews."
"After that he'll blacklist you from every station in the tri-state area."
"Matthews. Come on."
"Not to mention that it's unethical, Margaret."
"I mean, you're basically using subterfuge to obtain information. That's a direct violation of clause twenty--"
The roar reverberated off of the thin walls of her office. Matthews looked taken aback at her sudden outburst. But he stopped yelling at her.
"Jake," she repeated, softer. "I don't need you being all sanctimonious."
"And I don't need you being a lovesick idiot," Matthews mumbled darkly. It was so low that she almost didn't hear it. There were deep frown lines creasing his features and he didn't say anything else for a long time. That's when Margaret realized that there were more issues on the table than her relationship with Finn. She thought back to the dinner invitation from Saturday.
She shoved the memory to the far recesses of her mind.
"How did this even happen, Margaret?" Jake asked finally. He sank down into the chair across from her desk and suddenly he was back to playing the part of concerned friend. "How did you get yourself into this mess?"
"I didn't mean for it to go this far..." That was a lie. From the moment she saw the first photograph of former lieutenant Finn English, feeding her desires a satisfying feast was the only thing she'd been able to think about.
But Jake didn't need to know that.
Margaret looked up at her friend pleadingly. "My promotion hinges on writing this story, Matthews. But...I...now..." she let the words trail off. There was a distressed whine in her voice. "I really don't know what to do."
Matthews scooted his chair around her desk, closer to her. "Margaret," he told her in a voice filled with certainty. "You've got some serious re-evaluating to do."
She lifted her head and looked over at him, searching his face for some hint or clue as to what to do. It was blank.
"I can't help you with this one," he told her softly, suddenly sounding far older than his twenty-four years. "This is Margaret's chance. It's got to be be Margaret's choice too."
Margaret's choice. She thought to herself. Oh, boy.
The only thing keeping him going was knowing that he would see Margaret later. He tried to concentrate on that instead of the challenging and trying situation in front of him, but it was difficult.
“Er, not quite like that,” Finn held his hand out for the pencil. He circled a few problem areas. “Now see here? How this isn’t adding up?”
Nick shook his head dismally. It was 4:45. They had been working to grapple this one equation since school had been dismissed at 3:30. Normally, Finn wouldn't place such a large emphasis on a small assignment like this, but this particular one served a larger purpose. There was a lab scheduled for Friday and the pre-lab assignment had been to complete this worksheet. There were more than a few kids in the class who had only a basic understanding of balancing equations, but Nick didn’t get it at all.
The sixteen year old sighed heavily. “I’m just starting to feel dumber and dumber, English.
“Mr. English,” Finn corrected wearily. He loved teaching. Really, he did. But days like today were hard. “You’re not dumb, Nick. Balancing equations is hard.”
He wasn’t lying -- it was difficult to get the hang of -- but it would also be easier if Nick put in some effort. For the past hour he’d simply sat there and rewritten the equations. When Finn had hinted that the equations were supposed to look drastically different once they were balanced, he’d rewritten them backwards.
Nick shrugged impassively. Looking pointedly at the clock, he added “I gotta get to practice Mr. English.”
“We’ll work on it again tomorrow morning, okay?” Nick nodded distractedly and began to pack his things. Finn knew his mind was already elsewhere. Sports practice. Ah, he remembered those halcyon days. “Big game this week?”
Finn sucked in his breath. “Oof. Tough one.”
“Yeah,” his student agreed. “The last time we beat them was like way back in the nineties or something.”
The nineties?! Finn tried not to laugh. “Pretty sure it was more like 2005 wasn’t it?”
Nick shrugged and began to head for the door. Before he walked out, Finn nonchalantly added, "Yeah, it definitely was 2005. I was on the team."
That stopped Nick in his tracks. He turned around to face his teacher, and for a moment, he looked skeptical. Finn watched as Nick studied his teacher, looking first at his empty shirt sleeve and then at his legs. Then his face broke out into a slow, wide grin. “You pullin’ my leg, Mr. English.”
It wasn't a question. That Nick thought he was joking saddened him. It was just another reminder of what people saw when they looked at him these days.
Except Margaret. Somehow, she still saw him as whole.
The realization made him smile.
He was so lost in his thoughts that he didn't realize he hadn't answered until his student started laughing. "Good one, Mr. English. Funny."
“I’m not kidding!” Finn countered, incredulous. The melancholy had passed; now he was getting to the point of being offended that Nick still clearly thought this was a joke. "I was on the team!"
"Were you on the team or were you just the manager?"
This was getting ridiculous. "I was goalkeeper."
Nick raised his eyebrow skeptically. Finn could only imagine the rumors that were going to circulate in the locker room this afternoon.
“You go ahead and ask Coach Weathers at practice today. He’ll remember me.” Finn looked around the classroom and eyed the open door suspiciously. He lowered his voice. In a conspiratorial whisper he added, "He played for Carver at the same time, you know."
"Traitor!" Nick exclaimed. The rivalry between the city's two high schools ran deep.
Finn just smiled. Coach Mack Weathers had played center forward, and Finn had blocked his shot that would have allowed Carver to win the game. He'd been an okay athlete, but a terrible sport. When Carver High School had lost in 2005 he had ran off of the field, placing the blame on everybody but his team: the referees, the Lee High soccer team, even the fans. He'd been given a retrospective yellow card. But really, the fact that five years later he'd been hired to coach soccer at Lee was better punishment than any penalty card could have been.
As Nick left to accost Coach Weathers about where his loyalties lie--no doubt Finn would be on the receiving end of some very ugly hallway sneers tomorrow--Finn suddenly had an idea. Maybe there was a better way to incentivize his students to care more about chemistry than pounding it into their heads during extracurricular tutoring sessions.
Margaret couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
"You're setting up a teacher vs. students soccer game? But why?"
Margaret poured herself another glass of wine as she waited for him to explain. They had been talking about Finn’s big idea ever since she had gotten to his apartment an hour ago. Well, he had been talking and she had been listening—and drinking her career woes away. Finn was so excited and wrapped in his big idea that he (uncharacteristically) hadn’t even asked Margaret how her day had been. Nor had he noticed how she immediately headed for his wine wrack. At least, she didn’t think he had noticed. Truthfully, it was a misstep that she didn’t mind. Reliving her and Matthews’ dramatic exchange and explaining her ethical dilemma was not how she wanted to spend the evening.
Being with Finn and pretending everything was peachy was how she wanted to spend the evening. She took a long sip of wine. And that’s exactly what she planned on doing.
Now they were outside on the patio. Margaret sat on a wicker lounge chair while Finn grilled fresh caught Gulf Shrimp from his buddy Stan. He stood at the grill with his back to her, but she could tell from his voice that he was smiling widely as he answered. “As an incentive, Mags!”
"An incentive for what?"
"To perform better in their classes. But also to just put more effort into school too."
"But...how is playing a game against their teachers going to help your students do that?"
She watched his shoulders rise and fall with a heavy sigh. He turned around to face her. "I haven't quite figured that part out yet."
Margaret chuckled. "That's the important part, Finn!"
Finn allowed himself a small smile too. "I know," he said turning back to the grill. "But I'll figure out how to entwine it into the curriculum somehow.”
She had no doubt that he would.
“I don’t know how a powderpuff game is going to get students riled up for science, but I love it that you’re trying,” Margaret told him as she stood and walked over to him. She wrapped her arms around his waist and gave him a gentle squeeze. “Your students are lucky to have you.”
Finn just shrugged, trying to act nonchalant. But he couldn’t hide the beaming smile on his face or the tips of his ears that were turning red from the praise.
Even so, she kept her arms wrapped around him a little while longer, relishing the moment. Then suddenly, Margaret felt a surge of something. Something strange and unrecognizable....some unidentifiable emotion that she hadn’t felt in a long time. The realization of what the feeling was sent a jolt of electricity coursing through her. It was terrified her and aroused her and excited her all at the same time.
It complicated things too.
But then, love is complicated sometimes, isn’t it, Mags?
The caveat didn’t help. She swallowed hard. And in that moment, Margaret made her choice.