“No,” the archangel assured them. “Just don’t be so quick to assume the obvious.”
“My oh my, she is talented,” Mercy admitted, watching her young charge’s agile leap across the stage.
It was at times like this that Jenny realized how badly she hungered for this dream. Once she stood on stage with the other dancers, her adrenaline started flowing, pumping her deflated hopes until they soared higher and higher.
This was where she belonged, where she longed to be. Her heart hummed with excitement, waiting for the opportunity to prove herself.
“Jenny Lancaster.” Her name was called by a man sitting in the theater seating. Since the lights blocked her view, the casting director was no more than a hoarse, detached voice. From her best guess, she figured he was somewhere in the first five or six rows.
Jenny stepped forward and handed the piano man her sheet music.
“What will you be singing?” asked the same uninterested voice.
She moved one step and peered into the dark. “ ‘Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.’ “
“Fine. Give us your best eight bars.”
It was always the same. Rarely did it vary. Jenny suspected she could have sung a tune from a Sesame Street production and no one would have known the difference, least of all the casting director. He’d made up his mind even before her turn had come, even before she’d been given a chance to prove what she could do.
Argentina might not weep for her, but Jenny felt the tears welling up inside her. Tears of disappointment. Tears of struggle. Tears of a dream that refused to die.
The first chords from the piano filled the silence. Jenny hung her head and closed her eyes, allowing the music to transport her to another world. She drew in a deep breath and slowly lifted her head. No longer was Jenny Lancaster auditioning for a bit part; she was playing the role of her life. Within the magic of a few notes, she was transformed from a disillusioned waitress into the ambitious wife of a South American dictator.
“Wow.” Mercy was set back on her wings. “That girl can sing.”
“She is talented,” Shirley was quick to agree.
“Incredible.” Goodness seemed to be at a loss for words, which was completely unlike her.
Mercy knew she could accept no credit for Jenny’s skill; nevertheless she experienced a deep sense of pride that she should be assigned to this amazing young woman.
“Her voice, why, it’s almost . . .”
“Angelic,” Gabriel supplied, grinning broadly. It was a rare treat to find the archangel in such good spirits.
“Yes,” Mercy agreed. “Angelic.”
“You believe you can handle this request?” he questioned.
Mercy was sure she could. “Yes,” she assured him confidently. “Leave everything to me.” Somehow, some way, Mercy would come up with the means of helping Jenny fulfill her dreams. With a little help from her friends.
Anyone with this much talent, this much heart, deserved a break. A bit of intercession from the heavenly realm never hurt. Naturally Mercy wasn’t about to let Gabriel know her plans, but then what he didn’t know couldn’t hurt him.
And while she had her hand in Jenny’s life, Mercy decided, she might as well do what she could about getting the talented singer home for the holidays.
“No funny stuff,” Gabriel warned.
Mercy managed to look offended. “Gabriel, please, you insult me.”
“I won’t have you hot-wiring cars and sending them where you will.”
Mercy’s shoulders went back in a display of outrage. “I’d never resort to anything that underhanded.”
Gabriel didn’t say anything for several moments. Then, scratching his head, he studied the three prayer ambassadors. “Can anyone tell me why I don’t believe you?”
“I’d like everyone to take out a clean piece of paper,” Brynn instructed, standing in front of the classroom. It sounded like a simple enough request, one would think. But from the moaning and groaning, it was as if she’d sprung a surprise quiz on them.
“You aren’t going to make us write again, are you?” Emilio Alcantara groaned aloud, voicing, Brynn suspected, the thoughts of half the class.
“Yes, I am,” she said, unwilling to let her students’ lack of enthusiasm dampen her spirits.
Yolanda leaned so far out of her desk toward Denzil Johnson that she nearly toppled onto the floor.
“Yolanda,” Brynn said, “is there a problem?”
“I don’t have any paper. I wanted to borrow a piece from Denzil.”
“Get your own paper, woman,” the black youth protested. “What do I look like, a friggin’ Wal-Mart?”
“I loaned you paper last week.” Yolanda’s dark eyes snapped with outrage.
“That’s because you were lucky enough to have me sit next to you. I never said nothin’ about paying you back.”
Yolanda’s mouth thinned, and it looked as if she were about to explode when Suzie Chang saved the day.
“I have an extra sheet she can use,” the Chinese girl volunteered shyly, tearing off a clean page from her tablet and passing it across the aisle to Yolanda. The Hispanic girl grabbed it and glared at Denzil as if to say it would be a cold day in hell before he got anything from her again.
“Thank you, Suzie,” Brynn said, eager to return to the writing assignment.
“What are you going to have us write about this time?” Emilio asked. “Not something stupid, I hope.”
Teaching the value clarification portion of the class had proved to be the most difficult for Brynn. She wanted to make this as interesting and as much fun as she could, but she often found herself on a completely different wavelength from her students.
The incident with Emilio in the hallway was a prime example. The teenager had actually expected her to lie on his behalf. Emilio didn’t understand why she’d told the truth about the knife. He’d missed three days of school and consequently blamed her. He saw nothing wrong with his own behavior but seemed to feel that she’d been the one to betray his trust.
It had taken the better part of another week for his sullen mood in class to disappear. She wasn’t sure even now what she’d done to get back into his good graces. Whatever it was, she was grateful. Emilio was a natural leader, so his attitude was quickly picked up by the others in class.
Ever since the incident with Emilio she’d been subjected to an attitude of mistrust. It was as if she’d fallen from grace in the eyes of her students.
“First off, don’t put your name on the top of the page.”
“You don’t want our names?” This clearly came as a surprise since she’d so often instructed them to remember just that.
“No names,” she reiterated. “Now I’d like each of you to write one hundred and fifty words.”
“We gotta count them?”
“That’s about a page and a half,” Brynn explained. “The subject of your paper is this: If I could kiss anyone in this classroom, who would it be, and why.”
For a moment the entire class looked at her as if they couldn’t believe what she’d said. Someone smothered a giggle and catcalls echoed across the room.
It didn’t take anyone long to get involved in the project. Soon heads were bowed over the paper, and her students wrote feverishly. Brynn liked to involve her students in some type of writing assignment, often on a daily basis. She did this for a number of reasons, but first and foremost was an effort to require them to clarify their thoughts on certain subjects. She attempted to balance a serious topic one day, followed by a lighter one the next.
Although she’d been teaching the class for a number of weeks now, whenever they were asked to write, her students put up a royal stink. Often they bombarded her with silly questions or employed other delay tactics in an effort to forestall the assignment.
Not this time. Looking at them now, writing as fast as their hands would allow, one would think the first student finished would be excused for what remained of the quarter.
“When you’re done writing, please bring the papers to my desk.” The class was both cooperative and silent. The cooperation part was a welcome relief. Brynn was beginning to feel like a salmon swimming upstream. Every inch was a struggle, every day a challenge.
One by one, her class delivered their papers to her desk. Before long Brynn had accumulated a tidy stack.
Curious whispers followed.
“Aren’t you going to read them?” someone asked.
“I will later,” she promised, as if this were a normal assignment.
“Wait a minute,” Emilio said, slouching down on his seat. “I gotta right to know how many women want me.”
Several of the girls booed, suggesting he wasn’t the one on their list.
Emilio planted his hand over his heart and looked deeply grieved by their lack of appreciation for his obvious charms.
“Did anyone put me down?” Modesto demanded. “Emilio’s got a point, you know.”
“One thing’s for sure, no one picked Mike,” taunted a boy in the back of class.
Mike was a loner and rarely contributed to class discussions. He suffered from a bad case of acne and kept his distance from the others. Brynn had never seen him talk to any of the other students. In many ways her heart went out to Mike, and she struggled to reach him. To have someone taunt him now was cruel and unnecessary. For the first time Brynn wondered about the wisdom of her assignment. It had sounded like such fun when she’d planned it.
“Don’t be so sure,” Brynn said, and reached for the stack of papers. Her relief was great when she saw that one of the first papers mentioned Mike’s name. “Here’s a paper for Mike.”
“You gotta be kidding.” This came from Modesto. The youth sat up and turned around to stare at Mike.
Brynn walked down the aisle and handed Mike the paper.
“How come he gets to read his and I can’t have mine?” This came from Emilio.
The corners of Mike’s mouth turned up and revealed a brief smile when she laid the sheet down on his desk.
“I’ll get to you soon enough,” Brynn promised.
“If anyone chose him,” Yolanda joked.
“Do bears shit in the woods?”
“Emilio,” Brynn admonished. “I won’t have that language in my class.”
“Sorry, Miss Cassidy.”
“Careful,” Brynn heard someone say under their breath. “She might get you suspended again.”
The next paper listed Emilio’s name. She handed it to him and he let out a triumphant cry and punctured the air with his fist. “What did I tell you?” he shouted. “Women are crazy about me.” Excited and pleased, he was halfway out of his desk. “I got charisma, you know. Real charisma.”
Brynn walked up and down the aisles, delivering the papers. It flustered her a bit when she found her own name toward the top of the page. Emilio’s handwriting was immediately recognizable, and she flushed. She’d never intended for anyone to put down her name.
“You aren’t going to want these back, are you?” Yolanda pleaded.