Cyril swore under his breath as he stared at the mounting black clouds sweeping across the mountain range. The pine trees swayed with warning sighs as the wind whistled through their branches. Crows whirled towards earth, out-flying the looming threat.
“Stupid weatherman never said anything about a storm.” Cyril didn’t realize he had spoken aloud until Jeanette curled her arm through his and clucked her disapproval.
“Weatherwoman, Cyrus. Or person. Not man for God’s sake. Besides, no one is perfect.”
Cyril didn’t doubt that for a moment. He had never really intended to invite Jeanette to his private sanctuary—but in an unguarded moment he had pontificated, “Kids today are out of their native element,” and Jeanette, being his superior by two grade levels and French proficiency, had laughed. Smirked really.
She had sat across from him in the teacher’s lounge, sipped her black coffee, nibbled her wheat crackers, and shook her curly-haired head. “Native element? What, pray tell, is a kid’s native element, Sorrel?”
Cyril squeezed his eyes shut against the memory. His face flushed, as it always did when she mutilated his name. When she first practiced her ruinous arts at a teacher’s convention— “Oh, good, here’s Floral, so we’re well represented—” he had dared to object.
“The name is Cyril—not Sorrel, not Floral—see if you can remember that.”
The flock of attending teachers froze in the face of his unflinching correction, but Jeannette merely grinned like a Cheshire cat. “Oh, Creel, don’t get all flaky and fall to pieces.”
His only retort had been a mute glare while his co-workers simply chuckled and wandered toward other entertainment. He had been bested. Clearly.
For two years, he waged a stoic campaign to keep his name unaltered, but Jeanette found myriad atrocious variations to spring on him—passing in the hall, at meetings, and even as she waved goodbye in the parking lot. In the teacher’s lounge, she would rattle on about her latest date, fashionable clothes, a got-to-go-see movie, progressive teaching, antiquated traditions, and whatever else fueled her current passion while he doodled swaying pine trees on a memo pad and retreated into icy politeness.
Occasionally, he’d vary his day by hunting up extra resources for a struggling student, but most six graders hated math and made little attempt to hide their distaste for the subject in particular—or for him in general. Even when he lugged in architects’ drawings, carpentry notes, checkbooks, and myriad other real-world examples of math’s viability, he would still be slapped down with the oft opined sentiment, “We’re never going to use this stuff—it’s a waste of time.”
He might as well be forcing broccoli down innocent kids’ throats. At least, Jeannette never made him feel like the enemy—a fool—but never an enemy. Perhaps that was why he accepted her question as a challenge and invited her to come to the mountains with him and experience the native elements herself.
Only when the muscled P. E. teacher, Mr. James, squeezed his shoulder and intoned the words, “Best of luck, ol’ pal,” did Cyril realize that staring down a pack of hyenas would have been a wiser option.
Their afternoon started more optimistically than he anticipated. Jeanette had met him in the parking lot decked out in cowboy boots, jeans, and a leather jacket.
He refrained from shaking his head and merely jiggled his keys. “Mind if I drive?”
Jeannette shrugged in utter nonchalance. “Might as well. You know where we’re going—I suppose.” Her grin widened wickedly as she added “Series.”
He sped up the winding road and, after arriving, started down the simplest and shortest trail. She bounced along at his side pointing out every squirrel and bird in hyper-exultation. When they returned to the parking lot, she deflated. “Is that it? I mean—that’s all you got, Virile?”
Cyril’s squinted at the lowering sun and considered his revenge—trail number five, meant for experienced hikers with a loud, splashing stream, a long, steep incline, two narrow passes, and one precipitous drop. His eyes narrowed as he returned to the forest.
They floundered across the bubbly stream and scrambled up the first incline when a warning rumbled across the sky. Distant trees swayed as a murmur rustled through the foliage. Cyril considered the low sun and a slight twinge shivered down his spine.
Jeannette scanned the waving branches with a frown. “How far have we come?”
“About half way.”
A brilliant flash of light made them blink as black clouds bundled together overhead.
That’s when he spouted his politically incorrect fury on the weatherperson. He could feel her arm squirming around his; searching for something he was loath to offer.
“Half-way? Seriously, Cereus, what were you thinking—”
He felt the familiar, hot flush rise to the roots of his hair. Cyril shook Jeanette’s arm away and snapped around like a wounded panther. “C-Y-R-I-L! My name is CYRIL!”
Jeannette blinked as the sky blustered overhead.
Cyril wrung his hands in a pantomime of strangling something—or someone—and bellowed. “Now shut up and quit acting like the stuck-up, little snob you always are and let me think of the quickest way out of here.” He looked up and down the paths and then pointed ahead. “Let’s go on.”
Doing a fair imitation of a rock wall, Jeanette folded her arms and glared.
Cyril stomped away with a wave of his hand. “Fine. Be a smart-ass. See if that gets you over the stream again. Not that I’d go back that way. But enjoy the incline and don’t slide off the edge of anything. There are about thirty minutes of light left—you might make it to a cave or something before night sets in.”
He was nearly a quarter of a mile down the path in the pelting rain when he heard her splashing steps. She charged into him, grabbed his shirt and yanked, sending them both careening into the mud. With her limp hair streaming across her face, she rounded a slug on his shoulder.
“You stupid pig! You mean, heartless idiot! Why I spent the last two years being nice to you is more than I can figure. But I never expected this! This—”
Cyril’s eyes widened as he staggered to his feet and watched her slip and slide. “You’ve been nice? When was that? I must’ve missed it. I could have sworn you spent the last two years tormenting me with your cruel, twisted, little name-calling.”
Lightning flared, and thunder crashed over their heads as Jeanette clenched her fists, facing him, bedraggled. “Always so high and mighty, aren’t you? Always getting your pants in a twist when I try to add a little fun into your life. Can’t climb down from your superior loft in the high and mighty world of algebra and advanced math. You think I couldn’t teach math? I could. I just chose to do something a little more creative, something that means something TO ME!”
A deafening crack of thunder sent them pelting down the path. Cyril slipped and threw his arms out for balance. The downpour increased, but Jeannette raced on. Cyril snatched her sleeve and pulled her to a jog. “You’ll fall, stupid. There’s a drop coming.”
Jeannette yanked away and raced ahead even faster. She shrieked as she started sliding down a steep incline.
Cyril grabbed her arm and pulled back, sprawling them both onto the muddy path.
Jeannette’s face twisted; she slapped his hand. “I’m not stupid!”
Cyril climbed to his knees, crawled under the shelter of a tree and let his head fall against the trunk, leaning back with heaving breaths. “Neither am I. Though every time you speak French, smirking as if I am too dense to understand, or when you mutilate my name—”
Jeannette rose shakily to her feet, slapped mud from her jeans, squared her shoulders, and started forward. She stepped into a dangling vine and yelped as a thorn scratched her cheek. She turned on Cyril, her voice low and menacing. “If you’re trying to get revenge—mission accomplished.”
Cyril rose and blinked at her silhouette in the dim light. He glanced at his muddy watch, sighed, and grabbed her hand. “Mission aborted. I’m an idiot, and we need to get out of here—now.”
Jeannette pulled away. “Don’t touch me!”
“You want to wander aimlessly in the dark under tons of swaying trees? Let’s make a truce and get out alive, okay?” Cyril stretched out his hand.
Jeannette turned and charged up the path.
As they sat dripping and muddy in the school parking lot, a sickle moon peeked through the vestiges of drifting clouds. Cyril hadn’t looked at her during the whole, miserable drive back to the city. She had stared straight ahead, silent as a tomb. When he parked, he expected her to bolt, but she just sat there.
Finally, he broke the ice with the most inane comment he ever made. “Well, at least it’s Friday.”
She stared at him a long moment, shifted in her seat, and faced him. “Native elements? You want the kids to experience the wonders of—”
Cyril let his head drop back against the headrest, though he would have welcomed a brick wall. He took a long cleansing breath. “I wasn’t expecting a storm of biblical proportions. I just wanted—”
Jeanette lifted her hand. “No, I get it. I just wish you’d have told me, not tried to kill me.” Her gaze dropped to the floor. “I was just joking. It was all in fun.”
The lump in his throat surprised Cyril. It was hard to swallow away. “Not so fun for me.”
They sat in silence, the school building a rectangular shadow looming in the background.
Cyril rubbed his dirty fingers together. “The woods—the natural world—it’s like God made it just for me. Thousands have been there before, but for a little while, it’s all mine. No forcing dreaded math problems on squirming kids—”
Jeannette sighed and wiped a stray strand of hair from her eyes. “Most kids think French is stupid. After all, who needs a teacher when there’s Google translator?”
Cyril folded his hands and shrugged. “Google would have me ordering snails for breakfast.”
The barest hint of Jeannette’s smile glimmered between the neon light posts and the black night. “To be totally honest, variables scare me. Letters smacked up against numbers, it seems wrong, somehow.”
Cyril never knew exactly what came over him, but he reached across the seat and lifted Jeanette’s hand, lacing her fingers with his. “Actually, they can do amazing things together.”
Jeanette tilted her head, the moonlight highlighting a teasing smile. “Like thunderstorms in native elements—Cyril?”