Harvest Moon Homecoming

Chapter 1

Fink vowed to stop the chaos.

He glanced at the large Roman numeral clock on the wall of his office. With narrowed eyes, he turned back to stare out the big picture window overlooking the main entrance to the small Pennsylvania school.

Monday morning. Eight forty-three. Any minute now.

He straightened his tie, then drummed his fingers on the desk. This had gone on long enough, and he was going to put a stop to it. Today.

As if his determination had conjured it, the old blue Ford F-150 shot into view. Smoke billowed out of the tailpipe. The roar and rumble of the motor shook the window glass. No muffler. Rubber squealed and the passenger-side wheels lifted from the pavement as the truck careened around the turn. The two heads inside the cab bobbled and jerked. As the truck slowed, the cloud of smoke engulfed it. It lurched to a stop with the front passenger tire on the sidewalk.

Mr. Finkenbinder frowned and rubbed the side of his nose. He could never figure out whether Mrs. Bright parked that way on purpose, or if it was truly an accident every time.

He turned to the solid glass wall on his right. With all the privacy of a goldfish Mr. Finkenbinder would never be accused of any impropriety.

Three, two, one. Mrs. Bright barreled around the corner, her wild brown hair waving like Medusa’s snakes, her hot pink pajama bottoms churning, her large orange T-shirt rippling like a flag in the wind, her Muck boots clomping against the freshly waxed floor.

“Hurry up, Harper. We’re late.” The frightful woman turned to her daughter, who trailed behind her, unfazed. A small pang of envy zipped through his chest. How did such a crazy, irresponsible woman have such an organized, obedient daughter? And why, in the name of all that was holy, did the nephew who had been dropped on his doorstep this fall have to be more like Mrs. Bright than her daughter?

“Crap, I forgot paper for a note.” Mrs. Bright stopped and slapped her forehead.

Harper tapped her mother’s shoulder and handed her the sheet she carried on top of her neatly stacked books.

“Oh, you’re wonderful, Harper. Thanks,” she gushed. As if Harper didn’t do that every Monday morning.

Jordon Swoop raced by the window, screeched to a stop, backed up, and tapped Mr. Finkenbinder’s window. “Are you lifting tonight, Mr. F?”

He gave the kid a small smile and nodded. Jordon’s grades had been high enough to keep him eligible for sports since last winter, but he was still holding Mr. Finkenbinder to the deal they’d made—Mr. Finkenbinder would help him with his academics and Jordon would be his lifting partner.

Jordon gave a thumbs-up and hustled away.

Mr. Finkenbinder had lost sight of Mrs. Bright and her daughter as they entered the office, blocked by one of the nonglass walls. But when they stepped up to the counter in the office, he could again see the odd pair through the window in his door. His nostrils flared and his smile disappeared.

He reached for the intercom on his desk and depressed the button. “Mrs. Herschel?”

“Yes, Mr. Finkenbinder?”

“Once you have authorized the late excuse and administered the tardy notice, would you please send Mrs. Bright into my office?” He looked down, adjusting the single sheet of paper on his pristine desk, but out of his peripheral vision, he sensed Mrs. Bright turn and stare straight at him. His big wall clock ticked seven times before he lifted his eyes and met hers, which were a startling blue.

She spun around.

“I don’t have time to meet with that pompous donkey today.”

Because his door was cracked and her voice was raised, he heard her quite plainly. He could have yelled out the door to Mrs. Herschel. Some might say he should have since this was a small country school with none of the metal detectors, door locks, and ID cards that other, larger schools had acquired in the last decade. The atmosphere of the school was casual. Mr. Finkenbinder didn’t do casual.

He depressed the button of the intercom again.

“Mrs. Herschel?”

“Yes, Mr. Finkenbinder?”

“If Mrs. Bright should find her schedule too full to grace me with her presence in my office”—Mr. Finkenbinder could hardly believe he’d used Mrs. Bright’s name and gracein the same sentence, but there it was. English was a complicated language—”you may dismiss her and assign her daughter to Room One for two hours of after-school detention.”

“Yes, Mr. Finkenbinder.”

This time Mrs. Bright whipped around and yanked open his door. It banged against the doorstop and lurched back, smacking her in the temple. She tended to lead with her head, as if she had horns.

She swore. At him or the door. Maybe both.

He did not look up, using the pencil in his hand to make a short remark about nothing on the paper in front of him, noting the scent of fresh pine filling his office.

Ten ticks of the clock. He glanced up. “Oh, Mrs. Bright. Why, you found time in your schedule to see me after all? How nice. Do come in.”

She walked in and slammed the door.

“Please sit down.” He gestured toward the two metal chairs facing his desk.

“Let’s not pretend we like each other, Fink,” she said with saccharine sweetness as she swiped a Tootsie Roll from the container on his desk and plopped down.

Mr. Finkenbinder managed not only to withhold his growl, but to also plaster a pleasant, bland smile on his face. “I’m sorry you feel that way, Mrs. Bright.” He straightened the Tootsie Roll container so it aligned properly with the corner of his desk.

She crossed her arms over her chest.

He noted the nasty red swelling on the side of her head and squelched the compassion threatening to trickle up into his heart. Any sign of weakness on his part would give a woman like this too much of an advantage.

“Since I became principal of this school last year, I have noticed that almost every morning you arrive with your daughter at least thirty minutes late. Once or twice we could allow to slide by, but your daughter is missing important instruction in her first period class. You do want what is best for your daughter, Mrs. Bright?”

“Actually, no. I was thinking about chaining her to the railroad tracks on my way home tonight, Fink.”

He set the pencil down with a snap, perfectly parallel with the edge of the paper, and refrained from commenting on her striking resemblance to a fire-breathing dragon.

Mrs. Bright popped the Tootsie Roll into her mouth, threw the wrapper on his desk, and grabbed another piece of candy. Did she deliberately move the container? Only a slight bump, but his entire desk felt crooked now.

Mr. Finkenbinder clamped down on his tongue as he picked up her trash, threw it in the trash can on the other side of the desk, and straightened the candy container.

Next Wednesday, the Chestnut Hill school board would meet for their regular monthly meeting. On that evening, they would choose a new district superintendent. Mr. Finkenbinder intended that his name be chosen. If he grabbed Mrs. Bright by her Medusa hair and dragged her out of the building screaming, it would lower his chances of improving his position in this district.

“I understand that it must be difficult for you to raise your daughter after the death of your husband.” Was it possible for a wife to disorganize a husband to death? “But I must insist on punctuality. Other students who are late face the consequences.”

She probably chewed her Tootsie Roll with her mouth open on purpose. Mr. Finkenbinder ignored the irritation threatening to close off his throat and focused on his speech.

“Harper is a contender to be valedictorian or salutatorian this year. Her tardiness is through no fault of her own. Because of that, I am reluctant to punish her. However, lest I be accused of playing favorites, there must be a consequence. I am prepared to apply the repercussion to the actual offender. You.”

Mrs. Bright rolled her eyes. “Right, Fink. I know you have it in for me. What’d you want me to do? Sit in detention? Write an essay? Stand in the corner?”

He waited. Fifteen ticks of the clock.

Savoring the moment, containing his anticipation, he opened his mouth.

Before he could speak, Mr. Daschel, the chemistry teacher, ran past his window. His hand left a grubby mark on the glass as he grabbed it with a clunk and screech, to slow his pace enough to make the turn to the office. He still overshot. His hand disappeared, then reappeared, windmilling in the air.

Mr. Finkenbinder said to no one in particular, since Mrs. Bright and he were not exactly on casual speaking terms, “I do believe he was smoking.”

“God forbid there be a cigarette in the sanctuary.” She slouched in the chair and rolled her eyes.

“No. I mean, his body was smoking.”

Mr. Daschel barged into the office. He stopped short when his gaze landed on Mrs. Bright.

“Uh, I’m sorry. Knock, knock.” He gave a sheepish smile.

Mr. Finkenbinder did not return it.

Smoke wafted up from the man’s clothing. His left eyebrow was gone. “Yes?”

“Didn’t mean to interrupt, Mr. F, but the float we were making for homecoming exploded.”

“Good grief.” Mr. Finkenbinder stood. It was possible an evil chuckle came from Mrs. Bright, but he choose to ignore it. “Was anyone hurt?”

“No. No. You see, I thought if I combinedhydroquinone and—”

“Later, Mr. Daschel. The police will be here any minute.” There went his opportunity for superintendent. “And the news media. You might want to…put yourself out.” Mr. Finkenbinder gestured toward the smoke. He couldn’t believe the fire alarm hadn’t gone off. That would make his day complete. All 328 Chestnut Hill High School students wandering around outside, wasting valuable learning time, while the volunteer fire company sprayed Mr. Daschel’s jacket with fire-retardant foam. Lovely.

“Wait.” Mr. Daschel glanced at his arm and seemed startled to realize he was smoking. “The float explosion happened this weekend and I forgot to tell you. I ran out of class as soon as I remembered.” He swatted at his smoking arm. “But we did have a small mishap in the room just moments ago—nothing out of the ordinary. De rigueur, so to speak.”

Mr. Finkenbinder blinked at the incorrect usage of de rigueur, but did not interrupt.

With his head lowered, Mr. Daschel shuffled his feet before he continued. “Anyway, it reminded me of the explosion this weekend, and the ruination of the homecoming float. I’m afraid the parents of the committee members have revoked permission for their children to help build it. We are floatless, and our volunteers have resigned.”

Mr. Finkenbinder sat and resisted the urge to drop his head into his hands. The acrid odor of scorched material overpowered the fresh scent of pine and burned his nose.

The parade was Saturday evening.

First Mrs. Bright. Now the homecoming float. The people in this community were laid-back, but they had high expectations for the homecoming parade. Every group from the Boy Scouts to the three members of the Backyard BBQ Club would be in it.

Mr. Finkenbinder thought again of the superintendent position and squelched a sigh. He could kiss it goodbye if there was no school float in the parade.

“Well, it looks like you’ve got your hands full, so I’ll just head on out.” Mrs. Bright hopped out of her chair and scurried toward the door.

“Sit, Mrs. Bright. I’m not finished with you.” He hadn’t gotten to deliver the good news about the repercussions she had coming to her for her continued tardiness. That would brighten his day considerably. He smiled at the pun. “Thank you for letting me know about the explosion, Mr. Daschel.” Who would have thought he’d have a casual conversation in his office with a smoking teacher about an explosion? Information his college education had not included.

“You may return to class now,” he said to Mr. Daschel.

“Right. Of course.” He scooted out the door, a skinny line of smoke trailing after him.

Mr. Finkenbinder made a note to have the fire detection system examined.

He waited for the door to click shut, then turned toward Mrs. Bright. Somehow a piece of her wild hair had caught on the corner of her lip. Normally, this would annoy him, but he found himself noticing how pink and plump that lip was. Glossy. Kissable.

He sucked in a breath as his heart jumped in his chest. To calm himself he reached to straighten the one paper on his desk. He did notthink Mrs. Bright’s lip was kissable. Did not.

Mrs. Bright sat up, looking one way, then the other. “What? What is it?”

Mr. Finkenbinder took a deep, cleansing breath. Had the smoke in the room addled his brain? “Nothing. I, uh, nothing.” He slid the paper to the exact center of his desk, aghast to see his hands shaking.

One problem at a time. Or not? He had been eager to extend the appropriate repercussions to Mrs. Bright, but now he had a more practical use for her. He willed himself to remain in control.

“I believe we were in the midst of a conversation about the proper punishment for your daughter’s tardiness.”

“Right. My fault. My punishment. I’m on pine needles and a blowtorch just waiting to hear the verdict.” She touched her tongue to the corner of her mouth.

Mr. Finkenbinder swallowed. Loudly. He focused on her eyes. “If you would like to keep your daughter, and yourself, from spending the next two weeks sitting in after-school detention for two hours each day, you may spearhead the building of the Chestnut Hill homecoming float.”

Mr. Finkenbinder laced his fingers together and placed them on the desk. Now that he’d noticed her mouth, he was having a hard time looking elsewhere. The rest of Mrs. Bright might be a hot mess, but her mouth was kissable. Definitely. He suppressed his wayward musings. He was a bachelor with a nephew to raise. And a principal, hoping to become the superintendent. He most certainly would not be kissing any parents. Not now. Not ever.

Mrs. Bright stared at him with her arms crossed. She’d been speaking and he’d missed her entire tirade. Those pink lips were set in a straight line.

He cleared his throat. Easy guess that she’d just said she couldn’t do the float. Actually, come to think of it, he probably didn’t want her to. She couldn’t be depended upon to get her progeny to school on time. What an insane idea to think she could make a float by Saturday.

“Fine. If you don’t want to do the float, Harper can report to detention today after school.”

“Are you deaf, Fink? I just said I’d do the dang thing.” Her brows drew together.

“I’m sorry. I misunderstood.” Disappointment that he wouldn’t have the chance to saddle her with some nefarious consequence slid through his stomach. Still, she was certain to be late again. For now, at least he was getting the float taken care of. But, come to think of it, he’d better supervise. Drat. “Give Mrs. Herschel directions to your house. I assume that’s where you’re doing it?”

“Yes.” She spoke without moving her lips, and her back teeth ground with small crunches.

“Great. May I presume you will not turn down help?”

Veins stood out on the side of her neck, but she shook her head.

“Then my nephew and I will be over this evening. What time do you think you will commence?”

Her boot clunked against the floor in a fast rhythm. “Eight.”

“That will suit. We will be there.”

She jerked her head, her wild hair flying everywhere, and stood. “Unless, of course, I contract pneumonia, malaria, and herpes in the next twelve hours. If only I could be so favored.” Mrs. Bright continued to mutter under her breath as she stomped out of the room. After confirming her address with Mrs. Hershel, she strode out. She did not look through his window as she walked by.

“Mr. Finkenbinder, sir?” Mrs. Herschel’s voice crackled over the small intercom speaker.

He depressed the button. “Yes?”

“You were not at the employee luncheon yesterday afternoon?”

“No, ma’am.”

“I see. Well, you know Mrs. Kurtz had her Home Ec. class cater it. No one consulted me, and I’m not sure who made that decision.”

Mr. Finkenbinder groaned in his soul. Mrs. Kurtz was Mr. Daschel in female form. Only her experiments were intended to be ingested. By humans.

“The elementary school principal and seven teachers have called in sick. I’ve exhausted our supply of substitute teachers, but each position is accounted for. Unfortunately, I still need one more chaperone and a bus driver for the field trip the third grade is taking this afternoon.”

He already knew he was acting as principal for both elementary and high school today, common practice when one of them were out. How much was he expected to do? He depressed the button, thinking to instruct her to cancel the field trip. Immediately, the superintendent position came to mind. Instead he said, “That’s fine. I’ll do it.”