Where would we be without teachers? I hope everyone has at least one teacher in their life who makes a difference. One who pushes but praises, who inspires us to do our best. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 5, when Nita is realizing she has a story but is still reeling from a recent failure. 

Nita found Mrs. Womack in her class after school. Mrs. Womack’s eyes shined. They always shined. Even after school on a Friday—especially after school on a Friday. Mrs. Womack greeted Nita with a bright smile.

Nita’s eyes dropped to the floor. She never missed a deadline. And now here she was, showing up with nothing but faith. After a retraction, no less.

Where was Mr. Hack when she needed him most? When she’d been sitting in the principal’s office, he’d been out to lunch. After talking Nita into chasing down another wild story, he was nowhere to be found. Nita stood completely alone, with nothing to show for herself but the buzz of emptiness in her brain. Well, maybe not emptiness, the conversation with her neighbor was still echoing around up there.

Mrs. Womack held out her arms. “Well?”

Nita sighed. “I need an extension.”

Mrs. Womack waved her off. “Nita, you can keep the laptop as long as you need.”

Mrs. Womack kept a laptop in her room, a loaner for students on assignment. The “loaner” could be checked out for one week at a time, for classmates in a pinch. But Nita couldn’t help noticing how hers was the only name down the rows on the log. Everyone else had a computer, and Nita figured out long ago that Mrs. Womack did this for her. At first, she’d been embarrassed about it, but then she only became all the more determined to be the best.

Nita closed her eyes, her toes curling up in her shoe. “Thanks, but I meant for my piece.”

Mrs. Womack lowered her head to get Nita’s full attention. “Nita Simmons wants an extension.” She clapped her hands and popped back up. “Oh, this must be good. Oh, this is better than good.”

Nita looked up. Mrs. Womack’s bright red smile poked and prodded at the corners, daring Nita to smile. She did, but it didn’t last. “It’s… I mean, after what happened last time, well, I’m not so sure…”

Mrs. Womack wouldn’t hear it. “Listen, I know you may have some doubts right now, but I want to tell you something.” She took a seat at the edge of her desk. “You are an excellent writer.” She glanced around the room, then lowered her head and whispered, “Probably the finest writer I’ve ever taught, okay? There, I’ve said it.”

Nita tamed the second smile, but her heart leaped. She stared at her feet so she didn’t look like a dog begging for a treat. “Tell that to Mr. Abrams,” she sighed.

“You have a gift, Nita. You also have a ferocity that’s sometimes needed to get a story. Oh, and stubbornness, you’ve got that, too, by the truckload.” She stepped forward and found Nita’s eyes. “Extension granted.”

“Thanks.” Nita’s smile grew. “Okay, so I might have something, but…”

Mrs. Womack stood up straight and smacked her sides. “I knew it!”

She had Nita now. The way her eyes shined with inspiration, they challenged Nita to wow the world. But how? She had no story, not yet anyway. Nita picked up a pen from her desk, clicked the clicker a few times and smiled, her voice returning to normal. “Well, it’s going to take time. It might be an explosive piece.”

“Oh,” Mrs. Womack said. “You mean I just made that confession, talked you off a ledge and here you were sitting on some big story the whole time?” She smiled. “Okay. Extension still granted. I suppose we can get by with the fluff in the meantime.”

Nita followed Mrs. Womack around her desk, where her teacher wiggled the mouse and the screen came to life. “I’ve got a few movie reviews, and there’s the new Justin Bieber album…”

Bieber. Movies. Ha, I’ve got the story of a lifetime, Nita thought in her best Mr. Hack impression. Wait, where did that come from? Nita reigned herself in. She thought of sitting in that chair as the principal admonished her recklessness. How earlier that morning she’d stood on the porch spilling her guts to her neighbor instead of asking questions.

Nita bit her smile and nodded. “It’s local,” she said, baiting her teacher. “It’s uh, it has to do with an important piece of Crawford’s mired legacy.”

Mrs. Womack raised an eyebrow. Mired legacy. Ugh. That’s what Nita got for impersonating Hack. But Mrs. Womack smiled. “Sounds good.” She held up two fingers. “You’ve got two weeks, Nita, bring me something good.”

Oh I have good, all right, Nita thought.

She had something groundbreaking, maybe. But did she have the tools to dig it out? To get the old man to talk? And even if she did, did she have the chops to unearth the story and set it free? The courage to take on another big story and risk the wrath of the school again? Because what if she was wrong again? Or worse still, what if she was right and no one cared?

She hopped off the activity bus and shuffled down the block to find that the old man had been at it again. The porch spindles glistened wet and white, shining in the fading sun. She approached the porch, her feet more certain than her brain.

This time, Mr. Melvin was wide awake, although he didn’t seem so happy to see her. Nita fingered the zipper to her book bag. She didn’t know what to do next, how to begin or what to say, but she felt like she’d passed some sort of test when he nodded and said, “Good afternoon, Nita.”

Nita had thought a lot about what he’d asked her, about caring so much. And to be honest, Nita was still trying to figure that part out herself. But she knew in her gut Mr. Melvin’s story needed some attention. Sure, she’d keep her distance for now, even though Earl Melvin no longer seemed scary or dangerous, but a little rough around the edges. The way Nita saw it, if Ingrid Houston could brave bombs and war and windstorms, Nita could get some answers out of Earl Melvin—even though it seemed he was getting more answers out of her.

Justice in a Bottle by Pete Fanning Coming 3-3-2020

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