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For a guy who taught mechanical engineering at a fourth-rate college in the middle of nowhere, Tom Barlow was packing them in.
At the university where he'd last taught, there'd been an actual engineering school, and his students were genuinely interested in the subject matter. Here, though, at tiny Wickham College, four of the original six attendees had stumbled into class, having left registration until too late, only taking mechanical engineering because it still had open slots. Two had seemed genuinely interested, until one, the girl, transferred to Carnegie Mellon.
But then, by the end of the second week, he suddenly had thirty-six students jammed into the little classroom. Each one of these new students was female, ranging in age from eighteen to possibly fifty-five. Suddenly, an astonishing array of girls and women had decided that mechanical engineering (whatever that was) had become their new passion in life.
The clothes were a bit of a problem. Tight, trashy, low-cut, low-riding, inappropriate. Tom tended to teach to the wall in the back of the room, not wanting to make eye contact with the hungry gazes of seventy-eight percent of his class.
He tried not to leave time for questions, as the Barbarian Horde, as he thought of them, tended to be inappropriate. Are you single? How old are you? Where 'd you come from? Do you like foreign films/sushi/girls?
Then again, he needed this job. "Any questions?" he asked. Dozens of hands shot up. "Yes, Mr. Kearns," he said gratefully to the one student in the class who was there out of interest in the subject.
According to his file, Jacob Kearns had been kicked out of MIT for doing drugs. He seemed on the straight and narrow now, at least, but Wickham College was a hundred steps down academically. Then again, Tom knew all about shooting himself in the foot, career-wise.
"Dr. Barlow, with the hovercraft project, I was wondering how you'd calculate the escape velocity?"
"Good question. The escape velocity is the speed at which the kinetic energy of your object, along with its gravitational potential energy, is zero. Make sense?" The Barbarian Horde (those who were listening) looked confused.
"Definitely," Jacob said. "Thanks."
Thirty seconds to the bell. "Listen up," he said. "Your homework is to read chapters six and seven in your texts and answer all the study questions at the end of both as well as pass in your term project proposals. Those of you who flunked the hovercraft estimates have to do them again." Hopefully, he could break the Horde with a ridiculous workload. "Anything else?"
A hand went up. One of the Barbarians, of course. "Yes?" he said briskly.
"Are you British?" she asked, getting a ripple of giggles from a third of the class, whose mental age appeared to be twelve.
"I've answered that in a previous class. Any other questions that pertain to mechanical engineering, then? No? Great. Cheerio."
"Oh, my God, he said 'Cheerio,'" said a blonde dressed like a Cockney prostitute.
The bell rang, and the Barbarian Horde surged toward his desk. "Mr. Kearns, please stay a minute," Tom said.
Seven female students clustered around him. "So do you think I could, like, work for an architect or something?" one asked.
"I've no idea," he answered.
"I mean, after this class." She lowered her gaze to his mouth. Crikey. Made him want to shower.
"Pass the class first, then apply and see," he said.
"Do you want to hang out at the pub, Tom?" asked another of the BH. "I'd love to buy you a drink."
"That'd be inappropriate," he answered.
"I'm totally legal," she said with a leer.
"If you don't have any questions related to the lesson today, get out, please." He smiled to soften the words, and with a lot of pouty lips and hair tossing, the Barbarian Horde departed.
Tom waited till the other kids were out of earshot. "Jacob, would you be interested in interning for me?"
"Yeah! Sure! Um, doing what?"
"I customize airplanes here and there. Got a project coming up. It might be good on your CV."
"What's a CV?"
"Sure!" Jacob said again. "That'd be great."
"You can't be using, of course. Will that be a problem?"
The kid flushed. "No. I'm in NA and all that. Clean for thirteen months." He pushed his hands into his pockets. "I have to pee in a cup every month to come here. The health office has my records."
"Good. I'll give you a shout when I need you."
"Thanks, Dr. Barlow. Thanks a lot."
Tom nodded. The head of his department was standing in the doorway, frowning down the hallway, where a cacophony of giggles was coming from the twits. When Jacob left, the man came in and closed the door behind him.
This wouldn't be good news, Tom thought. Droog Dragul (not a shock that he was called Dracula, was it?) had the face of a medieval monktortured, pale and severe. He looked even more depressed than usual.
"Dee cheeldren of dis school," Droog said in his thick accent. He sighed. "Dey are so
" Tom winced, fearing the next phrase would be well fed or iron-rich. "Dey are so unfocused." Phew.
"Most of them, anyway," Tom said. "I've got one or two good students."
"Yes." His boss sighed. "And you heff such a vay vith the ladies, Tom. Perhaps we can heff beer and you can give pointers."
"It's the accent, mate," Tom said.
"Mine does not seem to heff same effect, for some reason. Eh heh heh heh heh!"
Tom winced, then smiled. Droog was a good guy. Strange, but nice enough. In the month since Tom had been teaching here, they'd had dinner once, gone out for beer and pool twice, and if the experience had been odd, it seemed that Droog had a good heart.
His boss sighed and sat down, tapping his long fingers on the desk. "Tom, I am afraid I heff bad news. Vee von't be able to renew your vork visa."
Tom inhaled sharply. The only reason he'd taken this job was for the work visa. "That was a condition of my employment."
"I em aware. But dee budget
it is too overtaxed for dee court fees."
"I thought you said it'd be no problem."
"I vas wrong. They heff reconsidered."
Tom felt his jaw locking. "I see."
"Vee value your teaching abilities and experience, Tom. Perhaps you vill find another way. Vee can give you till end of semester." He paused. "I em sorry. Very much so."
Tom nodded. "Thanks, mate." It wasn't Droog's fault. But shit.
Dr. Dragul left, and Tom sat at his desk another few minutes. Finding another job in February was unlikely. Wickham College had been the only place in western New York looking for an engineering professor, and Tom had been lucky to get the job as fast as he did. It wasn't a prestigious place, not by a long shot, but that wasn't really the point. This time around, it was all about location.
He couldn't keep his job without a work visa, though it wasn't like Immigration would be breathing down his neck; an employed professor was less of a concern than most of their cases. Still, the college wasn't going to keep him on illegally.
If he was going to stay, he needed a green card.
But first to the rather shabby house he'd just rented, and then to the much better bar down the street. A drink was definitely required.
A few nights later, Tom sat in the kitchen of his great-aunt Candace's kitchen, drinking tea. Only Brits could make decent tea, and though Candace had lived in the States for at least six decades, she hadn't lost the touch.
"That Melissa," Aunt Candace said darkly. "She messed everything up, didn't she?"
"Well. Let's not speak ill of the dead."
"But I'll miss you! And what about Charlie? How old is he now? Twelve?"
"Fourteen." His unofficial stepson had been ten when Tom met him. Hard to reconcile that talkative, happy little boy with the sullen teenager who barely spoke these days.
A fleeting pain lanced through his chest. Charlie wouldn't miss him, that seemed certain. One of those situations where Tom wasn't sure if he was doing any good whatsoever, or if, in fact, his presence made things worse. Melissa, Charlie's mother, was dead, and her brief engagement to Tom qualified him as nothing in the boy's life today, even though Charlie had been just a few months away from becoming Tom's stepson.
Whatever the case, Tom didn't have much choice about whether or not he was staying in the States. He'd emailed his old department head in England, who wrote right back saying they'd take Tom back in a heartbeat. There weren't any other colleges in western New York looking for someone with his credentials. And teaching was what he loved (when the students were actually interested in the subject matter, that was).
And so, Tom had decided to drive to Pennsylvania, visit the only relative he had in this country and start the goodbye process. He'd been in the States for four years now, and Aunt Candace had been good to him. Not to mention delirious with joy when he called after his last class to see if she was free for dinner. He even took her to the mall so she could buy a coat, proving a fact Tom firmly believedhe was a bloody saint.
"Here. Have more pie, darling." She pushed the dish across the table toward him, and Tom helped himself.
"Thanks," he said.
"Lovely town, Manningsport," she said. "I lived near there as a child, did you know that?"
"So you told me," Tom said. His lovely old aunt could bake, that was certain.
"Finish that pie, you might as well. I'm prediabetic or some such nonsense. Then again, I'm also eighty-two years old. Life without dessert is too horrible to contemplate. I'll just overdose on caramel corn and die with a smile on my face. What was I saying again?"
"You used to live near Manningsport."
"Yes, that's right! Just for a few years. My mother was a widow, you see. My father died of pneumonia, and so she packed my brother and me up and came to America. Elsbeth, your grandmother, was already married, so she stayed in Manchester with her husband, of course. Your grandfather. But I remember the crossing, seeing the Statue of Liberty. I was seven years old. Oh, it was thrilling!" She smiled and took a sip of tea.
"So that's how you became a Yank?" Tom asked.
She nodded. "We lived in Corning, and she met my stepfather, and he adopted Peter and me."
"I never knew that," Tom said.
"He was a lovely man. A farmer. Sometimes I'd go with him to deliver milk." Candace smiled. "Anyway, we moved after my brother died in the war. I was fifteen then. But I still have a friend there. More of a pen pal, do you know what that is?" Tom smiled. "I do."
"A pity you have to leave. It's beautiful there." Candy's gaze suddenly sharpened. "Tom, dear
if you really want to stay in the States, you can always marry an American."
"That's illegal, Auntie."
He laughed. "I can't see myself going that far," he said. "It might be different ifwell. It's not an option."
It might be if Charlie actually wanted him to stay. Needed him. If Tom were anything but a thorn in Charlie's side, he might give it a whirl.
He had two thin job prospects with manufacturing firms, both requiring experience he didn't have. If those didn't work out (and he was almost positive they wouldn't), he'd be heading back to jolly old England, which wouldn't be awful. He'd be near his dad. Probably meet some nice girl someday. Charlie would barely remember him.
The pie suddenly tasted like ash. He pushed back his plate. "I'd better be off," he said. "Thanks for the visit."
She stood up and hugged him, her cheek soft against his. "Thank you for coming to see an old lady," she said. "I'm going to brag about this for days. My grand-nephew adores me."
"You're right. Ta, Auntie. I'll call you and let you know what's happening."
"If I happen to know someone who might be interested, can I give her your number, dear?"
"Interested in what, Auntie?"
"In marrying you."
Tom laughed. The old lady's face was so hopeful, though. "Sure," he said, giving her another kiss on the cheek. Let the old bird feel useful, and that way, maybe she wouldn't feel so bad when he went back to England.
There was that pain in his chest again.
It took four hours to drive back to Manningsport. Four hours of wretched, icy rain and windshield wipers that smeared, rather than cleared. The weather thickened as he approached the Finger Lakes. Perhaps he wouldn't get in too late to grab a bite (and a whiskey) at the pub he was becoming too fond of. Chat up the pretty bartender and try not to think about the future.