Great stories about good people caught in difficult situations.

Chapter Three Hundred and Twenty-two : Everything's new

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Monday morning — 7:30 a.m.
New York City

“Yes, ma’am,” Noelle said to the school administrator.

Not sure what she had agreed to, Noelle shifted uncomfortably in the hard wood chair. She glanced at Seth, who seemed deeply focused on the conversation. Noelle’s head started buzzing the moment she woke up. Even with Sissy there, she had been too nervous to eat. Noelle winced and wondered what would happen if she threw up right here.

“I’ll show you to your locker.” The administrator stood from her chair.

The woman smiled but Noelle was too nervous to see any warmth in the smile. Noelle stood at her chair and followed the administrator to the door. Seth put his arm over her shoulder and pulled her into him. They reached the door just as a bell rang.

Students filled the hallway. The administrator waited for the crowd to pass.

Art students. These were REAL art students, not fake artists who train with a guy whose studio is in the garage behind their house.

Noelle swallowed hard.

“What’s wrong?” Seth said in a low tone in her ear.

“They’re all wearing berets,” Noelle said.

“Didn’t you see that on the website?” the administrator asked. “We need to keep your hair out of the paint.”

“But …” Noelle started.

“It’s a school requirement,” the administrator said. “If you don’t have one …”

Horrified, Noelle moved closer to Seth. A teacher called to the administrator. She thread her way through the wave of students to where the teacher stood.

“What am I going to do?” Noelle asked.

“We’ll get a beret,” Seth said.

“But she won’t let me go here and …” Noelle’s voice dropped to an angry whisper. “Mike said berets were A-R-M-Y! That’s not art; that spells Army.”

Seth gave her an amused look. Spotting movement in the swell of students, Seth nodded down the hall. Noelle followed his gesture to see MJ moving toward them.

“What’s he doing here?” Noelle asked.

“He was in town for work,” Seth said. “He called this morning and I told him your schedule.”

“Does he have a beret?” Noelle asked.

Still amused, Seth raised his eyebrows and started to respond. Just then, the administrator waved them over. With Seth’s help, they managed to cut through the students to get to the other side.

“This is your teacher-advocate,” the administrator said. “He will track your progress. If you have any problems, first go to your teacher advocate.”

Something else caught the administrator’s attention and she went down the hallway.

“O’Malley,” Seth said and held out his hand for the teacher to shake.

“Louis Bellerose,” the teacher said. “It’s a real pleasure to meet the Seth O’Malley.”

The teacher looked at Seth for a moment. Seth gave him a guarded smile. The man nodded to Seth before turning to Noelle.

“Norsen,” Noelle said in an imitation of Seth. She held out her hand for the teacher to shake.

“Nice to meet you, Ms. Norsen,” The teacher shook Noelle’s hand.

“Just Norsen, sir,” Noelle said. “My grandfather and I, we just go by our last names. It’s a family thing.”

Noelle gave the teacher such a sincere nod that the teacher had to look away not to laugh. When he looked back, he noticed Noelle’s bare hair.

“No beret?” Mr. Bellerose asked. He scowled. “You’ll have to …”

“Sorry I’m late.” MJ was suddenly towering over them.

Surprised, Noelle gave a little squeal. She’d forgotten all about MJ. Seth raised his eyebrows and MJ nodded. Before Noelle could ask what was going on, Seth nodded his chin to MJ.

“Did you bring your beret?” Seth asked.

“Oh right,” MJ said. “Does it matter what color it is? I got this green one.”

MJ took a dark green beret out of his pocket.

“It’s one of the LC’s,” MJ said. He set it in Noelle’s hands. “See, it has the F on the back. She wanted Noelle to have it.”

“What’s an LC?” Noelle said in a low voice.

“It’s Alex’s,” Seth replied.

“Really?” Noelle grinned. She tugged the hat from MJ’s hand and stuck the beret on her head. “That’s wonderful! Thanks!”

“You don’t mind if Noelle wears an active duty Special Forces beret, do you?” Seth asked.

“I …” Mr. Bellerose said. “I’m not sure we’ll have to …”

The hallway had almost cleared of students. The teacher pointed to the administrator and she moved toward them. She was a foot from them when she saw Noelle’s beret. Her hand came up to touch the Black Vivaldi Script F on the back of the beret.

“Where’d you get that?” the administrator asked in a low tone.

Her eyes flicked to look at the teacher before noticing MJ was standing next to Seth. MJ gave the woman a firm nod of his head.

“You must be Sergeant Scully,” the administrator said.

She shook MJ’s hand. MJ nodded toward his black jacket with the script Vivaldi F on it. The administrator gave an acknowledging bounce of her head.

“This is Alex’s beret,” Noelle beamed. “She’s the bravest person I’ve ever met. I’m going to wear it every single day and be brave like Alex.”

“I …” the administrator scowled. “Uh …”

“Alex gave it to me,” Noelle said.

“I knew you’d understand,” Seth said with a smile. The administrator gave a slow nod. “Now, we were going to get Noelle’s locker set up and purchase her books. Can you point us in the direction of the F-wing? That’s where Noelle’s locker is located.”

“Down the corridor to your right,” Mr. Bellerose said. “I’ll check in with you later, Noelle.”

“Norsen,” Noelle corrected.

Noelle gave Mr. Bellerose a wave before she, MJ, and Seth went to find her locker. With Alex’s beret on her head, Noelle felt like a new person. She was actually excited to be here. To be nice, she let Seth help her with her locker.

She only had a few minutes before her live model class. They jogged up the stairs to a large open classroom with a hundred easels set up around a small platform.

“Oh great, you’re here,” the painting instructor said.

Thinking she meant her, Noelle swallowed hard. Noelle stepped back into Seth and MJ stepped forward. The instructor shook MJ’s hand.

“What’s going on?” Noelle asked.

“MJ’s going to stay with you,” Seth said. “When your instructor heard, he asked if MJ would model for this class.”

“Naked?” Noelle’s voice rose with anxiety.

“His leg,” Seth said in her ear.

Noelle nodded. She knew MJ had lost his leg in the war in Iraq.

“You must be Noelle,” the instructor said.

“Norsen,” Noelle remembered to correct him.

“Very well,” the instructor smiled. “Norsen, your easel is over here.”

Seth gave her a little push. She stumbled before catching her footing. She found herself at an easel between a teenaged boy and a girl about her age. She smiled at them before turning her attention to her easel. The easel was larger than she was and made out of plain wood. There was a thick pad of sketch paper attached to the easel. Basic art supplies lined the self below and a drawing pencil was sitting on the top of the thick pad of paper.

“Your attention please,” the instructor said.

The students stopped speaking to each other and the room became very quiet. Noelle looked over to see that Seth had found a chair and was sitting near the door. Noelle looked up at the front of the room to see that MJ had stripped down to shorts. He had taken off his prosthesis.

“In this exercise, we are looking at how life interacts with the perfect human figure,” the instructor said. “I want you to take special note to Sergeant Scully’s scars. Some are deep.”

The instructor gestured to MJ’s back and belly.

“And some seem superficial,” the instructor wave his hand near MJ’s missing calf, “and yet the injury is clearly profound.”

The room was silent as the students stared at MJ.

“Take it all in,” the instructor said. He paused for a moment. “Pick up your pencils.”

He paused and looked around the room.


Noelle’s hand sped across the page. Her anxious thoughts slipped out of her head. She was clear, focused, and drawing. At some point later, she remembered Seth. Looking toward the door, she realized he was gone. MJ caught her look and winked at her. She smiled, adjusted her beret, and went back to work.


Monday morning — 9:58 a.m.
New York City

“Right, but the thing is,” the girl next to Sissy whispered to the girl on her other side, “ … he’s really mean.”

They were sitting on a metal bench in the girl’s locker room. Sissy was setting up her locker so the other girls just ignored her. Seth had returned from dropping off Noelle in time to take Sissy to school. This morning, she was scheduled to take a class that focused on only one ballet form a session. It was supposed to be equally grueling and necessary.

“No toe shoes?” the girl on the other side of Sissy asked.

“No toe shoes,” the other girl nodded. “Not until he’s sure of the strength of our feet. Our feet!”

The girls gave each other sincere, but panic filled nods.

“What if we hurt our feet?” the girl to Sissy’s right asked.

The girl on Sissy’s left gave an overly dramatic shrug. A few minutes later, the girls left to use the restroom. Once they were gone, Sissy looked down at her own feet. Sandy had taken her to get a pedicure on Saturday. Looking at the clear polish, Sissy remembered Ivan’s words.

“Clear polish only,” Ivan had said. “You must be able to see the health of the nail bed. It is the only way to test your circulation and the health of the toes.”

“Healthy toes make healthy dancers,” Sissy repeated Ivan’s words under her breath.

Sissy felt a wave of longing for her teacher. Missing Ivan led to missing Sandy and home and Charlie and Nash and precious Rachel and everyone at the Castle and Buster the ugly dog. She wished she hadn’t sent Seth away.

Sissy dropped down to the bench to stare at her feet. They were the most important thing to her career. She could have a bad car accident and overcome it. But if she injured her feet, she would never dance again. Sissy nodded. At least that’s what Ivan always said.

For a moment, her sorrow transformed into pure raw panic gripped her. She dropped her head to her knees to try to breathe.

She’d wanted to be a ballerina all of her life. She’d worked and worked and worked to make her body into that of a ballerina.

And this was her chance.

“Hey,” a girl’s voice said. Sissy felt a tap on her shoulder. Sissy looked up. “You don’t want to be late.”

Sissy nodded and got up. She locked her locker and left the locker room with the other girl.

“Ramona,” the girl said.

“Sissy,” she said.

The girls walked down the hall toward the classroom.

“Nice to meet you,” Sissy said added.

“You too,” Ramona said. “Don’t be intimidated. We have this new teacher who’s really mean. He had a fit last week because our feet are so messed up. Most of the girls were mad, but I just figure that it can’t hurt to take care of your feet.”

“They’re your career,” Sissy repeated what Ivan always said.

Ramona nodded. They continued down the hallway.

“How old are you?” Ramona asked when they turned the corner.

“I just turned fourteen,” Sissy said.

“Fifteen,” Ramona said. “You’re not in the dorm.”

“I’m staying with a family friend until I get settled,” Sissy said.

“Nice,” Ramona said.

Taller, Sissy opened the door for Ramona and followed her into the room. The girls were standing along the bar at the back. The teacher hadn’t arrived yet. Having left her belongings in the locker room, Sissy slipped off her clogs and went to the bar. Ramona stood behind her.

They waited and watched the clock. The class was supposed to start at 10:10 a.m. The girls shifted uncomfortably and Sissy cleared her throat. She was about to say something when the door moved a little bit.

“Here he comes,” the oldest girl said. “Get ready.”

Ivan walked in the room. Sissy almost cheered out loud. He shot her a fierce “shut-up” scowl.

“Time to dance,” Ivan said.


Monday morning — 8:35 a.m.
Phoenix, Arizona

“Hello gorgeous,” Yvonne purred into her cellphone and then listened to Rodney’s breath catch.

Dionne stepped away so that Yvonne could have some privacy. After a moment, Rodney chuckled.

“You always do that,” he said.

“I do,” she said brightly. “Nice to know I still have the touch.”

“Yes,” Rodney said.

She expected him to say more but he didn’t.

“You called me,” Yvonne said.

“Oh, yes,” Rodney cleared his throat, “I did.”

A police cruiser with its siren blaring rolled past Yvonne.

“Is that for you?” Rodney asked.

“I don’t think so,” Yvonne said.

“Where are you?” Rodney asked.

“We’re standing outside the FBI headquarters hoping to catch the agent,” Yvonne said. “We tried her house, but she’s out running.”

“Why are you standing there?” There was a muffled scraping sound of Rodney rubbing his head like he did when he was confused.

“We want to remind her that we’re going to stay here until she does her job,” Yvonne said with a sniff.

Rodney chuckled.

“Don’t you laugh, Mr. Smith,” Yvonne said.

“I just cannot imagine you letting go of anything, let alone this,” Rodney said.

“I know!” Yvonne said. “Imagine someone thinking that of me. Insulting, that’s what that is.”

Rodney burst out laughing and she smiled.

“How’s my baby-Jabari?” Yvonne asked.

“He’s at the Marlowe School,” Rodney said. “He seemed happy to go there. He found someone he’d played with before and forgot all about me. He is very adaptable, that boy.”

“Amazing, isn’t it?” Yvonne asked.

“He is,” Rodney said.

“Any word on Fin or Jake?” Yvonne asked.

“Nothing,” Rodney said. “Not a word. Tanesha said they expected to hear or feel something.”


“Nothing,” Rodney said. “They are pretty worried.”

“I am too,” Yvonne said.

“I’m sure…” Rodney started.

“Oh, I have to go,” Yvonne said and hung up the phone. “There’s the agent.”

Agent Angela Muniz ‘s running shorts and an exercise top were wet with sweat. Her ears were plugged with headphones to an MP3 player. Yvonne and Dionne jogged down the steps to her. She was walking back and forth to cool off.

“I thought you’d left,” Agent Muniz said between puffs of breath.

“We’re going to be here until you do something,” Yvonne said.

Agent Muniz scowled at Yvonne and paced back and forth before stopping in front of them.

“Ready to get to work?” Agent Muniz asked.

“Us?” Dionne asked.

“Sure, why not?” the agent asked. “You’re here. You’re going to be a pain in the ass, so why not put you to work?”

“Doing what?” Yvonne asked.

“Phone calls,” Agent Muniz said. “You call all those people you told me about.”

“Okay,” Yvonne raised her cell phone. “What’s the number?”

Agent Muniz looked at Yvonne for a moment before she laughed.

“Just like that?” Agent Muniz asked. “You’re ready to go?”

“We’ve had some years to get ready,” Dionne said.

Agent Muniz gave a slow nod.

“Then let’s get this done,” Agent Muniz said. The agent ran up the stairs and to the building. At the door she yelled, “Coming?”

Yvonne and Dionne ran up the steps. They followed Agent Muniz into the building.

Denver Cereal continues next week…

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