Though she knew the unbearable pain of loss when her favorite aunt passed away from leukemia last spring, Phoebe had no idea how to comfort a child who had just lost their parents. She couldn’t begin to imagine losing Papa or Mom to something as tragic as what Clement Teka had just experienced.

When Aunt Nina slipped into eternity after her last chemo, the news rocked Phoebe off-kilter and she took a two-week leave of absence just to come to terms with the news. She didn’t understand why this seventeen-year-old boy insisted on coming to school just days after his parents’ death.

Sitting across from him now, Phoebe could only watch the boy in silence.

Though he wore a mask of impassivity, there was rebellion in the way he sat in his chair. He wanted nothing to do with the counseling sessions, mandatory after the loss of a family member. It’d taken several attempts on her part to bring him in the first place, and though he now attended them without prompting, she still couldn’t get a word out of him. Day five had passed and Clement Teka refused to speak about his feelings of the tragic loss.

Not that she blamed him since she too had sat in her dark studio apartment, shell-shocked over her aunt’s passing. But at least she’d cried; wailed even.

Clement sat like a statue, his eyes on the window, face tight as stone.

Experience told her he was shutting her out, shutting down. Her heart ached for the young man, wished she could help him, knowing she couldn’t until he opened up to her.

Hesitating only for a moment, Phoebe finally spoke. “You don’t have to be here if you don’t want to…” When he didn’t respond, she continued. “You don’t need to be in school right now. Your teachers are in full support of you being home with your family.”

His silence unsettled her. She had no idea what he was thinking; he’d never been in her office before this. It was like looking at a disarrayed pile of puzzle pieces and not knowing where to start.

Before she could think of something to fill the silence, the bell rang signaling the end of a class and the end of their counseling session.

Clement Teka stood abruptly and walked out of her office without a word.

Phoebe pressed the bridge of her nose, replaying their painfully one-sided interactions. What could she do to get him to talk, to feel?

“Ms. Randall?” a timid voice spoke from the door. “The next student’s here.”

Phoebe looked up to see her office aide standing there, blinking from behind thick lens.

“Okay great, send her in,” she said in a cheery voice, lowering her hand and flashing a smile. There was no reason to drag her frustration with one patient to another. Phoebe waited until her aid stepped away from the door before drawing in a calm breath. “Okay, Feebs. Just do your part and leave the rest to Him.” Her smile brightened as the next student stepped in.

Hours later and Phoebe was still racking her brain trying to figure out how to help Clement, to the point that she barely heard her mother’s question about her coming home this weekend.

“Phoebe, where’s your head this time?”

Her mother’s voice snapped her back to the present and she sat up in her chair. “Currently attached to my neck, Mom.”

“Very funny.”

Phoebe smirked and stood from her leather chair, moving to the window. Her succulent plants thrived well in the hot climate, basking in the sun. She sighed, counting down the minutes before she too could bask in the warm sun. “Sorry what was the question?”

“Home, weekend, you coming?”

Her gaze shifted to the parking lot directly outside her office. Kids filed out the high school building, some loitering in the parking lot, some lining up to climb onto the school buses. She wondered if Clement was on the bus or if he had a car. Would he drive one so soon after his parents—

“Phoebe?”

She winced. “Sorry Mom. Just a bit preoccupied is all.” Her gaze shifted yet again to the building. “Lots going on right now.”

“Hmm, anything in particular troubling you?”

“Troubling me?” she echoed, watching the subject of her thoughts trudge out of the building.

“Yes dear. I know how overly-involved you get in your students’ cases.”

“Hm, yeah…” she watched Clement step around the line of students waiting to load the bus. He kept his hands in his pockets, walking past the school parking lot. Her brow furrowed, her mind sifting through his file. He lived on the other side of the highway! Was he intending to walk home?

“I know you can’t talk about the specifics but—”

“Mom, I have to go.” Phoebe moved back to her desk, snatching up her keys and her purse. “I’ll call you later about coming home. Love you, bye!” She hung up the phone and headed out of the office.

She groaned as her suspicions were confirmed. A lone figure walked the periphery of the long, isolated back road. Clucking her tongue, she pulled her car alongside him. Rolling down the window, she called out. “Clement, get in. I’ll drive you home.”

Of course he didn’t respond and just kept walking without a moment’s glance her way.

She blew out an exasperated breath, at her wits end with him. Did he realize how dangerous this was? What if something tragic happened to him? What would his already-grieving family do?

With one glance at the rear-view mirror to the empty road, she honked at him. “Clement!” Still no response, no faltering steps. She squinted as he kept walking, pretending that she didn’t exist.

“Don’t make me do this, Clement,” she muttered to his back and squeezed the steering wheel.

And as if to defy her, Clement Teka glanced once at her. For a moment, she held her breath, thinking he contemplated her offer. Then he glanced over the other side and crossed the road.

Phoebe scoffed in disbelief. “So you wanna be like that?” She watched him walk up the road, intending to get home on foot instead of riding with her. She shook her head. “Well two can play that game.” She stepped off the brakes and accelerated in front of him before spinning the car sideways, blocking the path a few feet from him. Then she put the car in park and stepped out.

The fury on his face was a sight to behold. “Lady, you crazy?!”

Not exactly the first thing she would’ve liked to hear from him but at least he was speaking. She closed the door and parked her hands at her hips. “Get in the car or you’ll have more than my driving skills to contend with.”

He scowled. “Like I’d get in a car with you.”

“Either that or you leave me no choice but to call your guardian. There are no more options, Clement Teka.” She gave him her most stern expression and waited for his response.

It wasn’t until they headed for his family home that Phoebe realized what she’d done. Not only had she threatened the life of a student, she’d put him in a position that could trigger panic. Glancing once at him sitting with his shoulder to her, Phoebe tamped a sigh. Even if he was boiling mad, he was safe in her care.

“What’s your address?” she asked conversationally, adjusting the AC vent over him.

“Like you don’t know already.”

Phoebe glanced once at him and shook her head. “Just making conversation…” she faced the road, taking her time to their destination so as not to anger him further. Better late than never.

Once Phoebe pulled up the driveway of his quaint home and parked behind a rental car, Clement wasted no time leaving. She watched in silence as he stomped up the stairs, grimacing when he slammed the house door. There was no telling if he would show for their session tomorrow. Still, Phoebe was pleased. At least he could express something, anything even if just frustration for now. It was a start.

Deciding to leave tomorrow worries for tomorrow, Phoebe shifted gears to reverse when the house door opened and a man stepped out. Putting her foot over the brake, she watched the man stroll to the edge of the stairs and her breath caught. Her eyes skimmed his appearance; bulky frame clad in a pair of flannel pajama bottoms and a hoodie in summertime.

But it wasn’t his impressive physique or the striking dark features she would’ve admired openly under different circumstances. No, it was the displeasure plain on his features that gave her pause.

This had to be Abraham Teka, Clement’s eldest brother and guardian; and from the look on his face, he was as annoyed with her as Clement.

Phoebe watched him descend the steps toward her and contemplated fleeing for now. Drawing in a breath, she put the car in park. The Randalls never ran; they faced their opposition head on.

Before the man reached her car, Phoebe stepped out of the car with a smile on her face and extended a hand. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Teka. I am Phoebe Randall, your brother’s guidance counselor.”

<<Prologue/Series Page || Chapter 2>>

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