His Hometown Girl

His Hometown Girl

4.8 9
by Karen Rock

He'd always managed to best her… 

Jodi Chapman will do whatever it takes to get top care for her autistic son. If that means going home and convincing local farmers to sell their land, so be it. Even if her biggest opponent, childhood rival Daniel Gleason, is equally determined to convince farmers to buy into his co-op plan. And he's

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He'd always managed to best her… 

Jodi Chapman will do whatever it takes to get top care for her autistic son. If that means going home and convincing local farmers to sell their land, so be it. Even if her biggest opponent, childhood rival Daniel Gleason, is equally determined to convince farmers to buy into his co-op plan. And he's not playing fair. 

Facing off against Daniel is the last thing Jodi wants. The attraction that's always fueled their competitiveness is as strong as ever and just as distracting. But with both their futures on the line, and years of distrust between them, how can they ever be on the same side?

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"Tyler, what color?"

Jodi Chapman peered from the blue card to the psychologist crouched before her autistic four-year-old, holding her breath. Please get this, Ty. A good evaluation meant entrance to this specialized school that would help him talk again.

But instead of responding, her towheaded only child yanked off his eyeglasses band and threw them at his feet. Her hopes fell with them.

"I'm sorry." Jodi slung an arm around Tyler before he bolted for the train table. She'd known it'd be hard for him to focus when he'd pointed to it after entering Wonders Primary's playroom. Her mouth felt like a desert as Beth's pen scratched across the evaluation sheet. After an hour of assessments, Tyler wanted out when they desperately needed in.

"May I ask what you're writing, Beth?" She struggled to put on Tyler's glasses with one hand while holding him in place with the other.

"Tyler, you can play with the trains in a little bit." As a single mom, she wished she had three arms instead of two. Yet even that wouldn't be enough some days. If only this wasn't one of them.

"Keeping his glasses on will be a behavior goal if he attends school here this fall." Beth lowered her clipboard, her khaki pants and green polo shirt lacking the wrinkles embedded in Jodi's suit.

Jodi dragged in a deep breath and held Tyler tighter as he escalated from resistance to flailing.

If. Beth had said "if." Jodi inhaled the childhood smells of crayons, apple juice and glue, her gaze darting around the vibrant room that'd be perfect for her son. Warm sunlight streamed from a round skylight, illuminating a large foam-sided circle that resembled a kiddie pool, filled with books and toys. A child-size cardboard castle stood beside a trunk overflowing with dress-up clothes. Floor puzzle pieces lead to its entrance. It was a far cry from the small apartment where her kind neighbor cared for Tyler.

Six children rocked and fidgeted on a circle of colored rug squares while their teacher read them a story. Aides walked the group's perimeter, pulling some of the children's hands away from their ears while others applied shoulder pressure to those flapping their hands.

"Show me the blue train, Tyler." The psychologist pointed to the table and held out a hand, but Tyler batted it away.

"No hitting, Ty." Jodi felt her lower eyelid twitch. The break in Tyler's daily routine unsettled and overexcited him, the perfect storm for lashing out, poor baby.

"Do you want to play trains?" Beth tried again.

The psychologist tucked her clipboard under her arm at Tyler's nod and headed toward the table. Before following, he squeezed Jodi's knees, the sweet, unexpected gesture catching at her heart.

She blinked back tears when he wobbled on tiptoe after Beth and picked up a green train instead of the blue. Green was his favorite color. It might be the wrong answer for the evaluation, but it was right for him. Her chest tightened when the psychologist frowned and scribbled something on her clipboard, a brief glimpse showing a heavily marked page. Jodi imagined the comments. If only Wonders Primary knew the boy who patted her cheek until he fell asleep, the one who dressed Ollie, his stuffed elephant, in different outfits every day, the child who'd cried for a week after his father had walked out, and then never spoke again. Guilt churned in her stomach like a live thing.

"Mrs. Chapman?"

Jodi turned and smiled unevenly at a distinguished woman with close-cropped brown hair and an arched nose, her picture familiar from the school's website.

She discreetly brushed her damp palm against her skirt and held out her hand. "It's Ms. actually."

"Ms. Chapman. Welcome. I'm Mrs. Garcia, school director." Her hand was gripped, then released. "Thank you for coming in so quickly. Hopefully our last-minute opening for this fall will work out. You've been on the waiting list for-"

"Tyler's doctor referred him a year ago," she answered, though it'd felt longer than that. It'd been an anxious twelve-month involuntary wait to see if her application would be approved. Given the number of children around the country who attended this highly recognized school, she'd been told Tyler might not have this chance for three years. Or at all.

"If you'll meet me in my office, I'll join you once I've spoken with Beth. It's the last door down the hall."

Jodi glanced at the train table where her son ripped up tracks and smashed bridges. "Should I take Tyler with me?" Without her around, he might act out, give the wrong impression. Her heartbeat hammered.

"Our aides will watch him while Beth and I consult. Then Beth will take over when I join you." Mrs. Garcia studied Jodi over rimless bifocals. "He'll be in good hands."

Jodi hesitated, then nodded, feeling helpless. There was nothing more she could do. Fate had taken the wheel and would steer them where it would.

At the door, she called, "Mommy will be right back, Ty." But he continued playing without looking up and missed her reassuring smile. When he noticed she was gone, would he feel scared? Alone? With difficulty, she kept herself from running back to him.

She watched Beth hand Mrs. Garcia the clipboard, and their heads bent together. Jodi's grip tightened on the doorknob. What verdict were they reaching?

"I'll see you later, Tyler," she yelled, louder now. Several children in the reading circle looked up, but not her son. Her chest squeezed as he zoomed the green train around a wooden building. Did he care that she was leaving? The harsh truth was that she honestly didn't know.

She trudged down the hall and gave herself a pep talk. From everything she'd read, Wonders Primary excelled at working with challenged students. Hopefully they'd see Tyler's potential. Believe in him the way she did.

Inside the wood-paneled office, she paced to the window and peered out at the foggy Chicago skyline, grateful to be here. Until now, the path to Tyler's recovery had seemed as murky as the weather, her despair darker still. She rested her head against the cool windowpane and tried not to worry.

"Thank you for waiting, Ms. Chapman," Mrs. Garcia spoke behind her a couple minutes later. "Would you have a seat?"

Jodi strode to a leather chair in front of an imposing desk and sat, her white knuckles contrasting against the brown upholstered arms. "How's Tyler?"

"He's in the right place at the right time." Mrs. Garcia smiled, her red lipstick matching her manicured fingernails, which were splayed against the desk calendar. "We'd be happy to welcome him at Wonders Primary this coming fall."

Jodi sagged in her seat. Finally. She wasn't alone anymore…and she wouldn't fail Tyler. His care would have the order and predictability they both needed.

"Beth and the rest of the assessment team recommended that Tyler receive physical therapy, sensory-integration occupational therapy, speech therapy, social-skills training and behavioral training. We have every confidence that he'll make solid gains with us."

The news knocked the wind out of Jodi. She knew her son needed help. His therapist and doctor had said as much. But hearing the long list made his condition seem graver and more severe than she'd let herself imagine. She clamped a hand over her jittering knee. It was unfair. Tyler hadn't asked for this.

"I see," she managed at last.

"I realize this is short notice." Mrs. Garcia poured two cups of tea from an electric kettle on her credenza. "However, we'll need a ten percent tuition deposit to hold the spot." She offered Jodi a steaming mug. "Cream and sugar?"

Jodi shook her head and stared at the dark liquid, her wide eyes reflected back at her. In the excitement surrounding yesterday's surprise call from Wonders Primary, she hadn't asked about the cost.

She gulped her tea and the scalding liquid splashed down her throat. "And how much is tuition?"

Mrs. Garcia's brows met over her prominent nose. "Sixteen thousand. We don't provide that information on our website, but our secretary should have informed you when she called."

"She might have," Jodi admitted, her pulse thumping. Sixteen thousand? That couldn't be the price. "Tyler was having a tough time over…well…something and I'm afraid I only wrote down the appointment time. Did you say sixteen thousand a year?"

Mrs. Garcia scooped out her tea bag and laid it on her saucer. "No."

Air escaped Jodi in a rush. Thank goodness she'd heard that wrong. Her salary wouldn't cover such a large fee, even if her ex-husband contributed. And that was a big if…

"It's sixteen thousand a semester," the Wonders Primary director corrected, "and each semester runs six months."

Jodi splashed tea on her hand, too shocked to feel the burn when she set down her mug.

"But that…seems high." And impossible.

"Yes." The administrator's spoon clanked against the sides of her cup as she stirred in a packet of sweetener. "However, our board feels the fee is justified given our specialized work and reputation. Nevertheless, I understand if this is more than you expected and wish to look elsewhere."

Elsewhere? She'd tried everything and had nowhere left to turn. Jodi's hands twisted. She was failing Tyler and she couldn't let that happen. Not again. Disappointment settled around her slumped shoulders.

"I'm sorry to pressure you, Ms. Chapman, but there are many anxious families that would appreciate the chance to attend if you plan to withdraw."

"Please. A moment." Jodi strove to keep the panic out of her voice. She opened her purse to search for her calculator and found a Post-it note with her optimistic reminder: "Wonders Primary 10 a.m. J." How could she have been so naive? Expert care like this didn't come cheap. For people like her and Tyler, it might not come at all.

Her fingers encountered her cell phone and her screen saver flashed on. It was a picture of her and Tyler as she held him on her hip while he pointed at a hot air balloon. The festival had been a wonderful day, one of his better ones. They needed more of those after a year spent struggling through nightly therapy that ended with both of them in tears. Somehow this had to work.

"I'll take the spot," she blurted, then pressed her phone to her chest. What had she done?

Where Tyler was concerned, she tended to think with her heart.

"A wise choice," said Mrs. Garcia, her selfassured voice doing little to soothe Jodi's worries. "We'll need your deposit by the end of this week and the balance of the first half at the start of the fall semester. We split our tuition into biannual payments to make it more accessible to families."

"Yes," Jodi agreed, her voice faint. Her body felt limp and light, as though she could blend with the white clouds billowing by the Tribune building across the street.

"Excellent. We'll look forward to seeing Tyler in September."

Despite Mrs. Garcia's warm tone, Jodi shivered. September. Only three months to raise twice her current savings balance.

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