Kelsey Charming’s last first day of school wasn’t being celebrated.
For the past 12 years the first day of school had been marked by new pens and pencils, notebooks and folders still stiff and flat. Her grandmother made a “special breakfast” of essential brain food – mini quiche with spinach, berry and banana muffins, and Kelsey would never forget the year that started off with sweet potato and chickpea curry. Chickpeas are full of magnesium, her grandmother had said and tapped her temple. Increases blood flow to the brain.
Kelsey glanced once again at the clock on the stove. She’d been up since six, unable to sleep anymore. Instinctively, she knew her senior year of high school was the time to make memories with her childhood friends before they all scattered for college, but she was having a hard time coming to terms with the fact that the one person who was responsible for getting her this far was distinctly missing.
She jumped as a knock sounded at the door. Another glance at the clock confirmed that it was only ten till seven. She stood and padded around the table towards the door. She heard muffled voices, and as she stepped closer, she recognized them.
“…Might not be awake yet.”
“I wouldn’t be awake yet if it were me,” a male voice responded with a yawn, and then Kelsey heard him make a soft oomph as if hit in the stomach.
“Logan I swear to God-” a female voice began.
“Reva. Logan. Don’t start. Do any of you have a key?” another male voice asked.
A gravelly female voice with a thick accent responded, “Breakfast getting cold.”
Kelsey opened the door, and three teenagers’ heads whipped to face her while a smaller, wizened woman holding a casserole dish merely blinked at her.
“Um…” a boy with floppy curls said looking from Kelsey to the others.
“Surprise!” The other boy exclaimed, throwing out his arms and knocking the girl next to him in the chest. She promptly shoved him back.
“Ow! Logan…” She began as she reached to hit him again.
“No fighting,” Mrs. Konig said with a frown before looking at Kelsey. “We made you first day of school breakfast.”
Kelsey immediately felt her chest tighten and had to fight a welling of tears in her eyes. “Guys…”
“Come on it’s getting cold,” Logan said brushing past her. The others began to file in.
“Thanks, Elliot,” Kelsey said quietly as the curly headed boy passed her and he smiled.
“Wasn’t me. Eleanor gave Mrs. Konig the recipe before she…” Elliot trailed looking uncomfortable.
Kelsey gave him a small smile. “Died. You can say it, Elliot, I’m not going to burst into tears.”
“Well, you do it to a guy once, and he gets a little gun shy,” Elliot teased, and Kelsey blushed reaching to hit him lightly on the arm.
He grinned and followed the others over to the kitchen table where they were serving up breakfast tacos. Kelsey smiled watching her three best friends and the woman who helped raise her gather around the table to eat. Leave it to Gram to have a contingency plan.
They dug into their food, laughing and talking, and while Kelsey was painfully aware that this would all be so much more special if Gram could have been here, she couldn’t help but feel as if maybe a little part of her was.
When it was time to go, Mrs. Konig insisted on cleaning up, telling Kelsey she would lock up behind her.
“You have good first day,” Mrs. Konig said giving Kelsey a rare smile as the others shouldered their bags and slipped on their shoes. “I’ll keep an eye out for Sully, don’t worry.” The old woman’s face turned stony, and Kelsey nodded under her grave gaze.
“Wait is your dad still giving you grief about the will?” Reva asked from her place in front of the hall mirror where she was meticulously checking her makeup and fluffing her hair.
“Yes,” Kelsey said with exasperation as she slipped her messenger bag over her head.
“It’s been two months!” Reva exclaimed, focusing on moving a raven strand of hair from one side to the other. “He needs to accept that Eleanor gave him exactly what he gave you all these years.” She stepped back from the mirror and smiled sweetly at Kelsey. “Nothing.”
Kelsey rolled her eyes but couldn’t fight the small laugh that escaped her. Sullivan Charming wasn’t going to win any father of the year awards, and Gram had known this about her only son. However, it still came as an absolute shock when Gram left Kelsey everything – the condo, the rental properties, and the investment funds she had set up with Gramps well before Kelsey was born.
“Not true. She left Sully the Elantra,” Kelsey said as they began to file out the door. “Bye Mrs. Konig. Thanks again.”
“Welcome,” the old woman hollered back before the door closed.
“Yeah, but only because you can’t drive,” Logan said as walked along the landing that overlooked the parking lot. They passed Mrs. Konig’s door, then Reva’s, then Logan’s and finally Elliot’s before descending the stairs to the main level, the morning sun already warm despite the early hour.
“And even if you did decide to get your license – which honestly Kelsey, you’re 18 years old you need to have a driver’s license – you hated that car,” Reva added and Kelsey rolled her eyes.
“I’ll do it eventually,” Kelsey responded as they started down the wooden walkway towards the beach.
Lumen Beach was private in the sense that it was for residents, renters and Lambency locals only. Widely regarded as the most beautiful spot in town, the mile-long stretch of sandy shore cocooned in a crescent-shaped rock formation. The Cove kept the rental properties full during the summer and even as the busy season began to wind down, tourists and locals alike dotted the shoreline, enjoying the early morning sea breeze.
Elliot and Logan ran past the girls in a rush, each tossing a shirt over their shoulder at them and Kelsey fumbled but managed to save Elliot’s before it fell to the ground. Logan’s smacked Reva right in the face.
“Assholes! Do you know how long it took me to look like this?!”
She thrust the shirt into Kelsey’s hand before she scrambled in her bag for a compact. Reva checked her reflection at every angle before letting out a slow breath when she found her eyeliner still perfectly winged and her complexion flawless. The boys were cackling splashing around in the surf.
“Relax Reva. You’ve got enough shellac on there to set your face till prom,” Logan hollered, his sun-bleached hair now sticking up at all angles.
“Nice to see you dressed for the occasion, Logan” Reva watched Kelsey hand him his faded muscle shirt and eyed his khaki swim trunks with disapproval. “It’s the first day of our senior year. You couldn’t, like, muster up some shoes or something?”
“My sandals are in my bag,” Logan replied, hoisting the strap higher on his shoulder. “Nobody gives a shit about the first day of school except for you.”
“And Eleanor,” Elliot piped in. All eyes turned to Kelsey in silence, the rush of waves and squawking of seagulls the only sound.
“Yeah,” Kelsey said with a forced smile, “Gram loved the first day of school.”
The boys gave her tight smiles before turning to head up the beach again, falling into their own conversation.
“How are you holding up?” Reva asked as they started after the boys.
“Good,” Kelsey said brightly as she gave her friend a big smile. Reva raised one perfectly manicured eyebrow. Kelsey sighed. “Okay, some things still hit me like a punch in the gut. Stupid things. I went to Greens yesterday to get school supplies, and as soon as I walked in all I could think about was how for the past 11 years Gram and I would spend hours in there deciding what to get. I had to leave! This,” she said, hoisting up a battered gray messenger bag, “is pretty much empty.” She shook it for emphasis.
Reva pursed her lips. “If you were only going to wear it for show you could have at least picked something more stylish. And less,” she wrinkled her nose, “dirty.”
“It’s the only one I could find this morning. I think it’s from sophomore year,” Kelsey said bringing it to her face and giving it a sniff.
“You mean when you were making bombs and blowing up the other side of the beach.”
“It wasn’t a bomb,” Kelsey replied rolling her eyes. “I was doing chemical synthesis using highly reactive metals.”
“Yeah. And you almost blew up the other side of the beach,” Reva said with a laugh, and Kelsey’s face scrunched up in outrage.
“No, I–“ She sighed, calming herself. “Sheriff Lockheed wasn’t even that mad. He just brought me in to tell me the next time I do something that might make a loud noise or shake the ground or whatever to let him know. You know so the townspeople didn’t get all scared again.”
“Mr. Goldhirsch thought he was back in Germany. He had to go stay with his daughter for a week to recover,” Reva said giving her a pointed look and Kelsey winced biting her lip.
“I felt really bad about that.”
Reva sighed shaking her head before her attention was drawn further up the beach. They were passing Building One. Kelsey jumped as Reva grabbed her arm, pulling her close to let out a strangled squeal as their eyes fell on the tall man reigning in what looked to be large sails on the deck of the end unit.
“Hey, Mr. Danvers!” Reva yelled. Kelsey tensed, turning her face away in embarrassment.
Alex Danvers appeared from behind the large billowing fabric, which Kelsey guessed to be some elaborate awning, and raised a hand in greeting before going back to his task. His dark hair ruffled in the breeze, the sea blue button down he wore over a thin white tank top flapping behind him.
“I have waited three. long. years,” Reva punctuated, her eyes still riveted on Mr. Danvers as he pulled on the ropes, adjusting the awning so that it shaded the windows on the right side of his deck, “to be under that man’s tutelage.”
“Oh, Kels quit worrying. You only sucked at English before because Eleanor forced you into AP English. Now that you’re in with us mere mortals I’m sure you’re gonna do great.” Reva flashed her a winning, perfectly white smile.
“I dunno,” Kelsey replied, her eyes falling on Mr. Danvers again. “Everyone says his classes are hard no matter what track you’re on.”
“I’ll be there to help you though!” Reva exclaimed. Kelsey blinked at her. “Well, there’s always the writing center!”
Kelsey snorted as they left the condos and beach of Lumen Cove and tight-walked the thin strip of beach around the rocky crag that hid The Cove from view. Lambency Beach stretched before them, the boardwalk casting a shadow nearly as long as the low tide. The girls mounted the steep wooden stairs, climbing until they could see onto the roof of the condo complex. Logan and Elliot were waiting at the top. Logan grinned as they crested the final stair.
“Welcome to senior year, ladies,” he grinned cheerily, sweeping his arm out to present the pristine lawn and front facade of Lambency High School.
“Shut up Logan,” Reva said rolling her eyes, but she was smiling all the same.
A steady flow of students made their way down the boardwalk and crossed First Avenue towards the front doors of the school. More still milled around the lawn, enjoying the morning sunshine before being cooped up in a stuffy classroom all day. Kelsey remembered standing in the same spot freshman year, with the same three friends, a nervous ball of excitement burning in her stomach.
Show ‘em what you’ve got, Kels Bells, Gram had said from just behind her, there, but not intruding on the moment with her friends.
Kelsey looked back over her shoulder, half expecting the old woman to be there, grinning with pride and excitement. A lump rose in her throat when all she saw was the Alabama Gulf, blue-green in the watery morning sun.
“Come on Kelsey!” Reva hollered, and Kelsey turned around to see Reva, Logan, and Elliot all crossing the road. “Senior year starts now!”
* * *
For Alex Danvers, the shine of the first day of school had worn off some time ago. He was going into his sixth year of teaching and, for him, the first day of school meant nothing more than the end of summer. He liked teaching just fine and couldn’t see himself doing much else to make a living, but he’d be lying if he said he preferred standing in a stuffy classroom to standing on the deck of his sailboat, the Echo Delta, with the sea breeze on his face.
“Danvers!” A voice boomed across the busy office. Alex looked up to see Duke Fitzstephens wading in, trying not to bump into anyone with his formidable frame. Six foot five with shoulders nearly as wide as the grill of the F150 he drove, Fitz could have easily been school security instead of a P.E. teacher.
“Fitz, good to see you,” Alex replied pressing his lips together in what the staff and students of Lambency High understood was the closest he came to a smile.
“Yeah, hey man you wanna hit the Tavern later?” Fitz asked. Alex looked up at him perplexed then looked down at his watch.
“Did you develop alcoholism over the weekend? It’s 7:30 in the morning.”
Fitz shook his head exasperated. “Nah man I met these girls on the beach yesterday, and one of them is a brunette-”
“I’ll pass,” Alex interrupted a he looked back down at his papers and peered into his mailbox.
Fitz looked crestfallen. “But Lex, these girls-”
“Are from out of town?” Alex finished for him giving him a piercing look and Fitz swallowed hard at his penetrating blue gaze. Fitz hated when Alex used his teacher look on him. “You know I don’t like-”
“Mr. Danvers!” A small doughy woman with red hair was peering around Fitz’s large bicep with some difficulty.
“Miss Munter, lovely to see you,” Alex replied politely, turning his attention to her despite the mammoth man between them.
“I was wondering if we could discuss a student of yours,” Miss Munter said, and though Alex couldn’t see it, he knew she was wringing her hands behind Fitz.
“Fine, I gotta get to the gym anyway,” Fitz said, turning and squeezing past Miss Munter. “But think about going out later okay?” Fitz boomed back across the office and ducked out into the hall.
“Miss Munter it is 7:35 on the first day of school, please do not tell me one of my wayward charges has gotten themselves in trouble even before the first bell of the year,” Alex said, his voice tired. Miss Munter laughed.
“Alex, I have told you time and again please call me Caroline,” she said and batted her overly mascaraed eyes at him. “Your new awning looks wonderful! I might commission you to make one for my deck too.” Alex gave her his tight smile, waiting and she sighed. “No, no there’s nothing wrong. I just,” she sighed and pressed her lips together moving to stand closer to Alex. She lowered her voice and Alex was forced to lower his head to hear her. “It’s Kelsey Charming.”
“Is she in my class this year?” Alex questioned a sense of dread pulling in his stomach. He had worried about this since the four Lumen Cove teens entered high school. Something about the idea of seeing his students in the classroom and then again around his home made him uneasy.
“Yes, you see,” Miss Munter sighed, “Kelsey has been on track for the Illumination Scholarship since she was in 7th grade. She’s a math and science prodigy, a good kid aside from that incident a few years ago with the explosives on the beach–“ She cut herself off, waving a hand. “Never mind that. She’s taking your regular track senior lit class this semester.”
“And?” Alex asked when she didn’t continue.
“She’ll be out of the running for the scholarship if she drops AP English. I tried talking to her myself. Eleanor was a dear friend, and I am the girl’s guidance counselor.” Caroline sighed. “She struggles with the humanity courses. She’s taking Etiquette to avoid taking any more than she has to.”
“I’m sorry I don’t follow-”
“Eleanor always helped her with her English classes,” Miss Munter said, her voice hushed. Alex winced then nodded. “Kelsey doesn’t think she can manage an AP English class without her Gram.”
“Then she made the right decision lowering to a track that is more suited for her,” Alex responded not coldly but firmly. “I’m not about to force a girl who just had a death in the family into a strenuous course. You know how I conduct my AP class, Miss Munter.”
“Caroline. Yes, that’s why I was hoping you’d consider helping her,” Miss Munter said with a big smile, batting her lashes at him again.
“Oh no. No no,” Alex said with a laugh that contained no humor. “You can appreciate why I don’t take on project students.”
“Oh, that’s all just silly girls with raging hormones. Kelsey isn’t like that. She’s a good girl. And this scholarship would give her a full ride to anywhere she wants to go. She already has early admission to CalTech and Harvard, but she’s holding out for M.I.T. Alex, she’s worked so hard for this I just don’t want her to throw it away because she’s not in the right headspace to make good decisions right now.”
Alex sighed. He knew all about making poor decisions while in the wrong headspace. “Let me think about it,” he said. Miss Munter beamed at him.
“That’s all I ask,” she replied, patting his arm and giving him a wink before sauntering away happily.
A woman with brown frizzy hair made her way around the counter towards him, pushing her glasses up her nose with the same hand that was holding a giant cheese Danish before taking a bite.
“What’d old Munter want?” she questioned around the pastry in her mouth.
“She wants me to build her an awning,” Alex replied, and she looked at him puzzled. “And force a student into my AP class when not only is she ill-equipped, she doesn’t want to be in it,” he added as he gathered his papers and shouldered his bag, moving the both of them towards the exit to the hallway.
The woman’s eyebrows raised while she licked her lips. “You mean Kelsey Charming?”
“Hey Miss Drickle!” a student yelled from somewhere, and Hilary raised her half-eaten Danish in the air.
“Yes, hello,” she responded. “You need to help her,” she said to Alex, taking another huge bite of the danish.
“Hilary, you know I don’t get involved with students like that.
“You’re so touchy,” Hilary replied rolling her eyes. Her chewing reminded Alex briefly of a cow.
“No, they’re touchy. I don’t want any problems.”
“Do you know how rewarding it is to help a student who is struggling? How amazing it is to see the light finally come on?”
“Do you know how rewarding I find it not to be locked in a penitentiary?” Alex mocked. Hilary gave him a withering look.
“Oh, ha. Ha. I’m teaching Kelsey Charming Advanced Calculus as an independent study this year because she learned pre-calc on her own. Over the summer.” Hilary punctuated her statement by taking another obnoxiously large bite of Danish.
Alex’s stride stuttered at this information, and he felt a student bump into his back. “Sorry, Mr. Danvers.”
“No trouble,” Alex responded watching Hilary swallow then shove the last into her mouth as she smirked. “Are you serious?”
Hilary nodded, pausing to chew and swallow before she continued. “I doubt she needs me, but she has to be in a class. She’s also taking AP Chemistry and AP Physics. If she loses AP Lit she’s out of the running for that big scholarship the Illumination Foundation gives out.” She began to suck glaze off all five fingers one by one. “You should help her.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Alex said rolling his eyes as they approached his classroom. “I said I’d think about it.”
“Good!” Hilary said brightly, continuing down the hall towards the stairs, “I’ll see you in the lounge for lunch.”
Alex simply raised a hand in farewell and entered his classroom as Hilary went on her way to the science wing. There were a few students already in their seats while a few more clustered along the window sills soaking in the morning sunshine. He was one of the lucky teachers whose classroom overlooked the water. Hilary got stuck with a view of the football field and Fitz, well, he was in a windowless gym most of the day.
“Mr. Danvers,” an older man said as he pushed out of Alex’s chair. He had white hair in abundance on the top of his head, coming out his ears and out his nose. He had coke-bottle glasses that shrunk his eyes so that he looked like a surprised ferret. He didn’t smile as he gripped Alex’s hand to shake it.
“Mr. Papert?” Alex moved to set his papers and bag down on his desk. “Did you get lost on the way to the biology lab?”
“Ha ha, very funny Danvers. I imagine you were the funny fellow who suggested I teach freshman biology? Bunch of dunderheads all of them. I sincerely fear for the future of this country,” he replied with a sniff. Alex bit his lip to keep in a laugh. “No, I came to talk to you about a student of mine-”
“Kelsey Charming?” Alex sighed turning to face him. The older man’s face showed surprise.
“Yes,” he said running his tongue over his teeth. “So you’ve heard of her, good. You know she took Eleanor’s spot on the HOA?”
“Yes, Mr. Papert I was there for the vote.”
Mr. Papert sucked his teeth in annoyance. “Well at least they didn’t allow her to take over the Chairman position – or chairwoman, I guess. A teenager running the HOA? Pft.” Mr. Papert crossed his arms over his chest and brooded. Alex bit the inside of his lip to keep himself from laughing.
“She’s a legal adult,” Alex said, less in defense of the decision to keep a Charming family member on the board and more to irritate Papert.
Mr. Papert snorted and looked unconvinced.
“I can’t make any promises, but I’ll talk to her about switching back to the AP track.”
Mr. Papert’s expression didn’t change. He sucked his teeth again. “Try not to ruin her with all your poetry nonsense. She’s the only student I can tolerate currently.” He paused then. “Her grandmother’s death didn’t do her any good. Didn’t do any of us any good, really. Lovely woman Eleanor.”
“Yes,” Alex replied surprised at hearing Papert give someone a compliment for once. “Yes she was.”
“She sold you one of her rentals didn’t she?” Mr. Papert asked, eying him beadily through the thick lenses of his glasses.
Alex gave him a tight smile. “Yes, she did. Last winter. Why?”
Mr. Papert sucked his teeth thoughtfully. “Eleanor never asked for favors from people. She never wanted anyone to feel like she was pressuring them into something they didn’t want to do. But she was real good at softening folks so they’d maybe come to the idea on their own.” Mr. Papert eyed him. “I’ve been trying to get her to sell me one of her vacation rentals for twenty years. Me and Emmaline want some security for our golden years. But she sold it to you, Danvers.” He sucked his teeth again. “Might be ‘cause it is directly under your unit. Made sense.” Mr. Papert sniffed. “Or, might be Kelsey is already a whiz at science and doesn’t need any help from me. But she might need it from you.”
Alex blinked at the old man who patted him solidly on his shoulder before turning and shuffling out of the classroom. He hadn’t known Eleanor well but had to admit that did sound a bit like her. From what he could tell the old woman had been headstrong and passionate, and, now that he thought back on it, very much the doting grandmother. He remembered Kelsey then, the first time he met her playing out in his head. Eleanor called to a young girl who couldn’t have been older than eleven. She had been bashful, crossing one ankle over the other and ducking her head so that her dark hair curtained her face. This is my Kelsey, Mr. Danvers, she had said, tucking the preteen’s hair behind her ear. As if that were a cue, Kelsey stood straight and met his eyes, giving him a tight lipped smile before her gaze darted around the crowded auditorium, likely looking for a friend to save her from this adult interaction. She will start at Lambency Middle next fall. Kelsey had muttered an almost inaudible “hi” meeting his gaze briefly again before looking down at her shoes. Kelsey, Mr. Danvers is the new English teacher at the high school. The girl had mumbled something that sounded like “not very good at English.” Eleanor pinched her arm lightly and scoffed before telling Alex with a big smile that her granddaughter was more adept at the STEM subjects. She’d won the regional science fair in the elementary category last year. Alex had responded by being politely impressed and assured the top of Kelsey’s head, for she was still staring at her feet, that she needn’t worry, she wouldn’t be seeing him for five or so years yet. She had time to catch up.
Well, it looked like that time had come. Alex was none too comfortable with the idea of taking on a project student, much less a female, but it seemed as if he had no choice.