High School guidance counselor Heather Browning was twenty minutes into “The Backup Plan” and regretting it already.
Principal Margot Thomas seemed to agree. “That’s who you called to help Simon?”
Simon Williams, the frail but brilliant freshman boy who was Heather’s biggest concern this year, had already become the target of a senior thug. “It’s still August. We’re two days into the school year,” Heather admitted. “I thought I’d have more time than this to get Simon settled before anyone bothered him.” But that wasn’t the way it had turned out. Her initial goal—help Simon find some friends who would be protective camouflage against getting noticed by bullies—hadn’t worked fast enough.
The principal looked out the school window at that “backup plan” as he appeared in the parking lot. A boxy black car with flames painted on the side pulled into the handicapped-accessible parking space. Max Jones had arrived.
“This afternoon at lunch Jason Kikowitz decided Simon was sitting too close to the ‘varsity table.’ Evidently he grabbed the back of Simon’s wheelchair and spun him around, knocking most of Simon’s books out of his backpack.”
“Sounds like our Kikowitz,” Margot commiserated. “I’ll be glad when that boy graduates—if he graduates.”
“Simon spun around fast enough to whack Jason in the shins with the footrest of his wheelchair. It must’ve hurt, because evidently Jason hopped around on one foot and swore a blue streak in front of the lunch monitor.”
Margot gave the sigh of the weary. “Lovely.”
“At least it gave Simon a chance to get away. For now. You know Kikowitz,” Heather explained, feeling less and less sure of her course of action. “He’s likely to lay into Simon every day this week, even if I give him twenty detentions.”
The older woman looked at Heather with determination in her eyes. “You know I’ll back you up on those even if Coach Mullen gives me grief.”
Heather was grateful for Margot Thomas every single day. The principal was an outstanding administrator who cared enough to address problems head-on, even when it meant things got sticky. “Thanks, but you and I both know detentions don’t stop Kikowitz. What we need is help for Simon, and the assistance agency couldn’t come through with a proper mentor until next month. We don’t have that long, so I called JJ.” JJ was Heather’s friend and Max’s sister. And Max Jones, or “Hot Wheels” as a local magazine had dubbed him during their coverage of his highly publicized injury and recovery, was quite possibly the last thing Simon Williams needed. Even if he was the only other resident of Gordon Falls who used a wheelchair, Max seemed to be everything Heather didn’t want Simon to be rolled up into one defiant renegade.
The foolishness of calling on him struck her anew as she spied the HTWELZ2 license plate on the car. “Help me, Margot, I need wisdom and calm and I recruited a rolling tornado. Tell him I’ve been called into a meeting and that we don’t need a mentor anymore. I’ve made a huge mistake, and I don’t want Simon to pay for it.”
Margot leaned back against the windowsill. “I won’t tell him any such thing. I think I want to see how this turns out.”
“I don’t.” Heather rested her forehead in her open hand.
Together Heather and Margot watched Max perform the complicated task of extracting his wheelchair—black with flames on it that matched his car—and settling himself in it. He was athletic, graceful even, and managed to look casual, as if the process were no more taxing than tying a shoe. He wore blue jeans, expensive sneakers and a gray T-shirt with the words “Ramp it up, baby” running across his chest. It was easy to see that his shoulders and biceps carried most of his weight—his arms were toned and outdoor tan. His large hands boasted black leather driving gloves, and his mussed dirty-blond hair framed a strong face. Heather thought he needed a shave, not to mention a haircut and probably half a dozen diplomacy lessons. “Honestly,” she told her boss as Max started toward the ramp that led up the stairs to the school entrance, “that guy looks a far cry from an appropriate mentor for an impressionable teenager.”
“He’s a key executive at Adventure Access, which is supposed to be a fast-rising company in the adaptive recreation business. If they put faith in him,” offered the principal, sounding as if she was grasping at straws and not a little bit amused, “maybe he’s not as bad as…he looks.”
“Oh, I expect he’s worse,” Heather moaned. JJ’s husband, Alex Cushman, ran that fast-rising adaptive recreation company and had drafted Max as their spokesperson and development consultant. It wasn’t hard to see why. Max Jones had been so handsome, daring, arrogant and flamboyant before he’d injured himself that he’d been chosen for a nationally televised reality television show featuring adventure sports. As cruel chance would have it, he’d gotten hurt on that TV show during a risky night climb. Yet looking at him now, it seemed as if his disability barely slowed him down.
“Simon will probably adore him,” Margot offered.
“That’s exactly what I’m afraid of,” Heather moaned. “Nothing good could come from pairing that boy with that man.”
Kids were not his thing. Not before, not now.
As he rolled up the ramp to the Gordon Falls High School entrance, Max had to wonder how he’d let JJ talk him into this. If the GFHS teachers knew the kind of tyrant he’d been in high school, they’d be barring the doors.
Only they wouldn’t have to. Just take out the ramp and he couldn’t get inside no matter how hard he tried. While he’d worked on the development of all kinds of adaptive gear in his new position at Adventure Access, even those top innovators hadn’t yet come up with a wheelchair that could climb stairs.
Still, Max remembered the “special” kids from his high school days—not that long ago, for crying out loud—and how they’d been treated. It stuck in his gut that he’d been as mean as the next guy to kids who used wheelchairs or crutches or were in those classes. Max had done lots of crazy and regrettable things in high school, but those moments of picking on the weaker kids, the different kids—those gnawed at him now. He’d only said yes to this stint as a “mentor” because JJ seemed to think it might make up for some of his past crimes.
It’s four weeks with a gawky fifteen year old—I’ve faced far worse, Max assured himself as he punched the assistive entrance button and listened to the door whoosh open in front of him. At least schools usually had all the adaptations right. He’d had to sit there feeling stupid the other week when a restaurant had to literally move four tables in order to let him sit down with JJ and have lunch. Then the server had asked JJ what “her special friend” would like to eat. The nerve of some people! He’d given the server such a loud piece of his mind that they’d comped his lunch just to get him out of the place.
He rolled into the entrance, marveling at how high school was still high school. The bang of lockers, the smattering of posters for dances and sporting events, the echo of shouts from a distant gymnasium—it all flung Max’s mind back to those years. Hockey team. Prom. Working on his first car. Life was one big game back then, a never-ending stream of escapades, pranks and good times. He’d loved high school, been a master of the school scene—the social side of it, that is. Academics weren’t ever his thing though he’d managed to graduate just fine, despite a few…dozen…trips to the principal’s office.
Funny that it was his first stop now—or, rather, the guidance counselor’s office, which was practically the same thing.
“I’m Max Jones, here to see Heather Browning.” Max swallowed his annoyance that he was calling toward a counter over which he could not see. Well over six feet when he could stand, tall counters especially annoyed him now that he navigated the world from about three feet lower.
A gray-haired lady—school secretaries evidently hadn’t changed one bit since his varsity days—popped up from behind the blue Formica to peer at him over the top of her glasses. “Mr. Jones?” She did the double take Max always enjoyed. Somehow people never expected to see a guy in a wheelchair looking like him, and he got a kick out of leveraging the “Hot Wheels” persona to challenge their assumptions.
Max flicked an Adventure Access business card up onto the counter—shiny black with flames along the bottom with his name and title, “Company Spokesman and Adaptive Gear Development Specialist,” screaming out in yellow letters. “In the flesh and on the roll.”
Her wrinkled eyes popped wide for a moment, then narrowed in suspicion. “Is she expecting you?”
“Yes, I am,” came a female voice from behind Max.
Max spun around and sucked in a breath. The high school guidance counselors he remembered didn’t look like that. Maybe this wouldn’t be such a rough gig after all. “Well, hello, Ms. Browning.” He didn’t even try to hide the pleasant surprise in his voice. Where had JJ been hiding this “friend”? If he’d had a counselor like Heather Browning trying to lure him into higher education, he’d be working on his PhD by now. She had fantastic hair—long, honey-colored curls tumbled down to her shoulders in a wave. Bottle-green eyes that—well, okay, they were currently scowling a bit at him, but he could handle that. People scowled at him all the time, and he much preferred it to the diverted glances of pity that some people threw him. Pulling off his driving glove, Max extended a hand. “I am most definitely pleased to meet you.”
“Thanks for coming.” He could tell she only barely meant it. He probably shouldn’t have squealed his tires pulling into the parking lot like that.
“Anything for JJ,” Max said as they went into her office. It was filled with all the stuff one would expect of a helping professional—inspirational quotes, pretty pictures, plants and pottery. The only surprising thing was a “flock” of various flamingo figurines on her bookshelf and a metal flamingo statue-ish thingy on her desk. Max picked it up and inspected it. “I’m surprised we haven’t met before.”
Ms. Browning plucked the metal bird from his hands, returned it to its perch on her desk and sat down. She crossed her arms. “We have. This summer at the church picnic.”
He remembered that picnic as a rather boring affair, all happy community fried chicken and potato salad. Nice, if you liked that sort of thing, which he didn’t.
“Mr. Jones, if you—”
“Max,” he corrected.
“Max,” she relented. “I want to state one thing right off. This is a serious time commitment, and I’m sure you’re very busy. If you don’t have the time to give Simon the attention he needs, I’ll completely understand.”
“Hang on,” Max felt his stomach tighten at the low expectation expressed in her words. “I’m willing to make the time. Only I’m not really sure how you go about making freshman year of high school not hard, if you know what I mean. That’s sort of how it goes, isn’t it?”
“I’d like to think we can do better than that. A senior boy—Jason Kikowitz—has made Simon a target of sorts, and it’s going to take more than a stack of detention slips to set things right.”
“Kikowitz?” Max chuckled; the name brought up an instant vision of a thick-necked linebacker with a crew cut and four like-sized friends. “Why do the thugs always have names like Kikowitz?”
She didn’t seem to appreciate his commentary. “I want Simon to learn the right way to stand up for himself while I get Mr. Kikowitz to change his thinking.”
“Only Simon can’t stand up for himself, can he? Wheelchair. That’s the whole problem, isn’t it?” People always talked around the wheelchair—the elephant in the room—and Max liked to make them face it outright. It made everything easier after that, even if it took an off-color joke to get there.
She flushed and broke eye contact. “It’s part of the problem, yes.”
“It’s lots of the problem, I’d guess. Look, I’m in a chair. I get that. It’s part of who I am now, and pretending I’m just like you isn’t going to help anyone. It doesn’t bug me, so don’t let it bug you. I can take you out dancing if I wanted to, so I should be able to help this Simon kid hold his own.”
“You cannot take me out dancing.”
It was clear she wasn’t the type to like a joke. “Well, not in the usual sense, but there’s a guy in Chicago building an exoskeleton thingy that—”
“This is not a social meeting. Are we clear?”
She really did know how to suck all the fun out of a room.
“Crystal clear, Ms. Browning.” She was too stiff to even match his invitation to use first names. He’d have to work on that. “What is it, exactly, that you think Simon needs?”
“Well, I’d have to say social confidence. He’s led a fairly sheltered life because of his condition, but he’s brilliant…”
“The geeks always are.”
She sat back in her chair. “Can you at least try and do this on a professional level?”
Max made a show of folding his hands obediently in his lap. “Okay, Counselor Browning. Simon needs some base-level social skills and maybe enough confidence to know high school is survivable. Have I got it?”
She seemed to appreciate that. “Yes, in a matter of speaking.”
“And you’re thinking you need something just a little out of the ordinary to solve the problem, right?”
“Hey, you called me, not the nice bland people from social services.”
That probably wasn’t a smart crack to make to someone in guidance counseling. Her eyes narrowed. “Yes, well, the nice, appropriate people from social services were not available. This isn’t how I normally operate. It’s only fair to tell you you’re not my first choice.”
Max could only smile. “Alternative. Well, I’d have to say that’s exactly my specialty.”