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Prudence, Chapter 1

Mark Hasseran was new to teaching; he had two degrees, physics and chemistry, but aside from his student teaching, he hadn't taught before . On top of that, the town he'd been employed in was tiny; there had possibly been more people in his dorm than lived in the town proper.

On the other hand, the money was decent enough, the living expenses low, and if he stayed there for five years, his student loans would be forgiven -- which made the money effectively much better.

His first impression, upon driving into the town, was that it was a backwater. His second impression was that it would have to grow a bit to be a backwater. His third impression was that his second impression might be a bit generous.

It didn't take long to find a place to rent. A two-bedroom house, with over an acre of land, with trees, for less than he'd have paid for a small apartment in Dallas. Part of that was offset by the fact that he had to resort to a sattelite connection to get internet access, but it was relatively speedy, so he couldn't really complain.

When he went in to get set up for the start of classes, he was pleasantly surprised by the state of the school; though old, it was obviously kept in good repair, and the science lab was unexpectedly modern and well-stocked.

The townspeople seemed very reserved around him; friendly enough, but he got the definite impression that people were regarded as new-comers for several generations before being fully accepted. Still, it was quiet -- the county sheriff was in the area every so often for hunting violations, but that was about it.

The first night there, he was struck by how dark it was; there were no street lights around his house, since it was out in the middle of nowhere. His nearest neighbor was well over a mile away, and he could see more stars than he'd believed possible. He ordered a large telescope the next day. It ate into his money, but the first night he used it he decided it was well worth it. By the time the start of school rolled around, he was used to the solitude, so it was quite surprising to see the flash of headlights down the field road. It appeared some of the teenagers were having a 'back to school' party on the night before school started.

Mark grabbed up a duffel-bag, and filled it with a few supplies -- things he'd planned to use for demonstrations at school, but which might be more useful now. He walked quietly down towards the party, keeping an eye out for any signs of alcohol or drugs.

The teens had set up on one side of the pond; the sounds of splashing and giggling indicated that swimming was involved in the party. From what he could see, it seemed to be fairly evenly split between girls and boys. Loud music filled the air from a radio off to one side, and a pair of kegs on one of the tailgates seemed to be getting a fair amount of attention, though no one appeared to be drinking with the intent to get drunk.

Mark edged around so that he was coming from a direction where his view of the kegs would be blocked by the sides of the truck bed, and kept walking, quietly.

His eye was drawn to one of the girls dancing fairly close to the fire; she looked to be about fifteen, and he couldn't help but think she was the loveliest thing he'd ever seen in his life. Curly red-gold hair caught the firelight, looking like flame itself, and her smooth skin glowed in the flickering light, her face a work of art. Her movements were as graceful as a cat's, eyes closed, dancing slightly apart from the others, swaying to the beat of the music in a world of her own.

Mark swallowed convulsively, unable to tear his eyes away from the vision that entranced him. A wave of jealousy swept over him as one of the boys approached her, tapping her on the shoulder. Perfect emerald eyes opened, but she simply shook her head to whatever the boy said, and he moved away, disappointment visible on his face even at this distance. She looked towards where Mark stood in the bushes, hidden, and somehow he just knew she could see him, but she didn't react, just closed her eyes and danced until the end of the song, then joined some of the girls talking near the fire.

He shook his head as she turned her back on him, coming suddenly to his senses, and moved closer to the fire, calling out, "Howdy."

The party stilled suddenly as they noticed him, the music being turned down almost all the way. Nervous looks were cast in his direction, and one of the boys finally gathered the nerve to speak.

"Uh, hi."

"Ah, before I come on in and say hi, I'll just mention that if I was to see anything like underage drinking I'd be required by law to report it. I hope that nothing like that is visible."

A pair of what would have been linebackers in a larger town possessing a football team sat hastily on the tailgate of the truck, totally blocking the bed from view.

"We didn't mean to bother nobody, Mister."

Mark smothered a smile, and walked on into sight. "Don't worry about it. I primarily wanted to make sure I wouldn't find a whole bunch of beer cans down here -- like I said, if I saw something that would indicate something illegal, well . . . Y'all will make sure I don't see anything like that, right?"

"Huh? Oh, yeah. Course not."

"Good, good. Having one last party before school starts?"

"Yep. Condemned man's last meal, sorta thing. You musta moved into the ol' Barnes place. We didn't know. We'll keep it down."

Mark nodded. "I don't blame you. I'm Mark Hasseran; I'll be the new science teacher. Don't worry about the noise, it's not that bad." He grinned. "Y'all like fireworks?"

"Uh. Yeah, I guess."

Mark nodded. "I'll be right back." He turned and jogged back to his house, giving them a few minutes to . . . cover anything that needed it, and returned with the duffel bag. "What part of the pond are y'all swimming in? I don't want this to get too close."

Looking around, he realized that everyone seemed to have gotten out of the pond; many of the teens standing near the fire had wet hair. He noticed a number of worried looks being passed from teen to teen.

Mark walked over toward the pond. "Watch this." He put on a pair of heavy, oiled gloves, and pulled out a jar full of sugar-cube sized chunks of metal. "Sodium. It really likes water." He tossed one of the cubes into the water, with a satisfying explosion.

"Fuck!" There was a general scramble to get behind the truck.

"Awesome!"

"Crazy, dude!"

Mark grinned. "Yup." He closed that jar tightly, then pulled out another, full of shavings. He scooped out a small amount, and tossed it in the water, resulting in a dance of explosions and light over the water.

"Cool!"

"Awesome."

"Hey, there's fish in that pond . . . "

Mark nodded to the last speaker, a girl with curly brown hair and thick glasses. "That's why I'm only using a little. Not enough to hurt the fish." He closed that jar, and pulled out what looked like a foot-thick bundle of long, thin sticks. "Now, you want to see something really cool?"

"Dunno, man. Is it legal?"

Mark said, "Weeeeell . . . it probably wouldn't be for y'all, except on the Fourth, but I happen to have a demolitions license. I worked one summer helping blow up buildings. So I can get away with it."

"Blow up buildings . . . awesome!"

"Hey, if y'all are going to just play with fire, can we have our dancing music back?" The last was from a girl.

Mark nodded. "Sure, turn it up." He looked around for a nice bare spot of ground, with nothing overhead.

The girls turned up the music and most of them went back to dancing, though a couple of them seemed just as happy to watch explosions as most of the boys.

Mark bent the wires on the mass of sparklers to form a base, and then made sure everyone was well back. "This will be really bright. Try not to stare at it -- any of y'all done any welding?"

"Yeah, some." A few other murmurs of agreement, one from the girl with the glasses.

Mark nodded. "This won't be quite that bright, but pretty close." He lit the sparkler that was sticking up as a fuse, then sprinted to the circle of teens.

WHOOSH!!! Bright towering white flame shot up from the bundle.

"Awesome!"

"Fuck yeah!"

"Someone's gonna call the sheriff . . . "

Mark grinned and pulled out a cell phone, dialing the sheriff's office as the sparks and flame died down. When the answering machine picked up, he said, "This is Mark Hasseran; I just wanted to let you know I'm doing some demonstrations out by my place, so if someone calls in about bright lights or something, it's just me."

Most of the teens were watching, though a couple just looked and then went back to what they were doing. The big hulking muscle types threw a blanket over the kegs and came to watch the flames.

Mark's eyes were drawn to the girls dancing by the fire. The red-head swayed to something deep and rhythmic, making him lose his train of thought, and for a moment he didn't have a clue as to what he was going to say. He shook his head, trying to clear it, but couldn't bring himself to look away from the mesmerizing sight. He blinked, torn between knowing he should look away, and the desire to watch her.

"Yo, dude, that was cool. You sure you're really a teacher?"

Mark nodded, managing to look away, but physically aching to turn back and watch her. "Yup. I'm lucky, though; I get to teach science. Try doing something like that with, say, your history book!" He frowned, just a little. "On second thought, don't. I don't want to get yelled at for a bunch of burned history books."

"Oh, I dunno. Mr. Gerholt let us reenact the battle of Gettysburg last year, with fake blood and paint-guns and everything."

Mark raised an eyebrow. "Ok, that would be fun." He nodded at the melted glassy area underneath the sparklers. "Would you believe that those were just ordinary sparklers, like you buy at a fireworks stand?"

"Nifty. Have to remember that next Fourth."

"Just be careful -- that's hot. Goes up a good thirty or forty feet."

Someone turned up the music, the heavy beat of Madonna's 'Erotica' pulsing in the air. A couple of the guys let out a whooping yell. "Alright! Turn it up! Dance, Kristen, dance!"

The redhead laughed, a musical sound, the first time she'd responded to anything out loud. She pulled a ribbon from her hair and shook her head, letting the curls go wild. A circle cleared around her.

Mark glanced over as she opened her eyes and smiled briefly, seeming to look right at him, then closed them again and began to dance.

It was as if she was feeding on the audience, absorbing their attention and turning it back on them to attract it. There was no way he couldn't watch, and all but one of the guys seemed as caught. A couple of the girls were, as well, though he noticed this with just a tiny corner of his mind, the rest occupied with the vision writhing in the circle.

He swallowed, the bit of his mind that wasn't buried in overwhelming arousal confused as to how this sort of reaction could be provoked by an obviously underage female, no matter how pretty she was. The rest of his mind was absorbed with visions of taking those tight jeans and that black t-shirt off of her.

He stared, not having the will to fight it, and the longer he watched, the less will he had to look away. She was pure, undiluted lust in a human package. He'd seen porn movies less explicit than the movement of her fully clothed body, and vaguely wondered, in the back of his head, if this was going to end in an orgy when the other teens lost control.

The music rose to a crescendo, and then, on the final note, she tossed her hair back and bent backward, arms stretched to the heavens as if in supplication, red-gold curls brushing the backs of her calves, small breasts straining against the tight t-shirt, nipples clearly visible. She held the pose for a moment, then straightened as the audience started clapping, whistling and shouting.

When the music stopped, the boys crowded around her, all of them wanting her attention. His line of sight was broken and he swallowed, again, trying to get the willpower to fade back, and return home, away from her, away from the lust he felt.

He quietly packed up his bag, getting ready to leave, and the girl with the glasses noticed him.

Her hair was down around her face, framing her elfin features as she moved unobtrusively over to him. "Leaving, Mr. Hasseran?" she asked, quietly.

Mark nodded, nervously. "Ah, yeah. I think I'd better get some sleep."

The girl grinned knowingly. "Don't worry about Kristen, sir, she does that to men. She doesn't mean any harm."

Mark managed a smile. "Perhaps she does, but it wouldn't be wise of me to allow her to do it to me."

She snickered. "Good luck. At least you didn't pretend you don't know what I meant. Most of the teachers try. Nice to see honesty. And explosions, of course."

Mark hesitated, then set his bag back down, making sure he was facing away from the fire. "You think so?"

"Well, duh. I mean, you all act like we don't have brains just because we're younger than you. For instance, you'd have to be freakin' blind not to notice what Kristen does to men . . . some girls, too . . . and so they all pretend they're not affected. But the principal won't even call her to his office when she's in trouble . . . he always meets with her in the hall because he doesn't trust himself to be alone with her."

Mark chuckled. "I can understand why not." He sighed. "Frankly, the . . . reaction doesn't bother me so much as the . . . " he hesitated, looking for the right words, finally settling on "temptation."

"But why be bothered at all? I mean, it's just a natural physical reaction. Adults tell us all the time that temptation is resistible. Don't do drugs . . . no matter how tempting. Don't drink. Don't have sex. Well, fine and dandy, we'll resist, and it's not that hard. But it seems to me that denying the temptation is there is a more dangerous thing." She raised an eyebrow behind the glasses, as if challenging him to deny it.

Mark raised an eyebrow in return. "You know, you are quite mature for your age. For what it's worth, I agree with you. She's not the first person to attract me who wouldn't be good for me. What bothers me is that I felt, just for a moment, that . . . it might be worth it."

"So? You're human. And like I said, honesty is refreshing. Besides, I really don't see what the big deal is, it's not like she's a virgin or anything. You'd probably be a lot better for her than the idiots she usually dates."

"Aside from the fact that I'm a teacher, and she's underage . . . no, thank you, I'd prefer not to become intimately acquainted with someone named 'Bubba'."

"So don't get caught? Anyway, yeah, breaking the law might be stupid, but the fact that the law exists is pretty stupid, too."

"I'm not going to get into that argument." Mark grinned. "I suspect that saying anything bad about that law would be just as bad as breaking it, at least for a new teacher who'll be teaching underage girls in his class."

"Heh. Yeah. See you in class, Mr. H. I'm gonna go swim while the pond is mostly empty."

Mark nodded, glancing back towards the fire one last time before starting the walk back up to his house. His dreams were . . . predictable. Only more so than he would have expected, even given his reactions. Images of her body, dancing, naked, around a fire . . . . He woke up sweaty -- and damp.

His first class, Honors Advanced Biology, went fairly well. His second class was Freshman Chemistry. It contained both the girl he'd talked with last night (Kayla James, according to the roll) and the object of his lustful dreams.

By spending a lot of time writing at the blackboard, he managed to keep his eyes off of her, but it was hard. It wasn't the only thing that was hard, either. He just hoped it wasn't visible to the students, but the amused look on Kayla's face made him suspect that his hope was in vain.

The class was a fairly standard mix of a couple of really bright students, a couple of really dumb ones, one who could be brilliant if he bothered, and mostly mediocre, bored students who were just trying to pass. He spent part of the class explaining why sodium exploded when tossed in water, and from the student's reactions, he knew that word of the previous night's demonstrations had gotten around.

At the end of class, he asked Kayla to stay behind for a few minutes.

"Yeah, Dr. H?" Kayla was about 5' 2", her dark hair pulled back tight except for chin-length bangs which dangled over her face. She tended to look at the ground rather than people's faces, wore baggy clothes and tended to slouch.

She was also, according to the other teachers, the smartest kid the school had ever seen.

Mark said, "Ah, Kayla, I've got a bit of a problem, and I'd like your help."

She raised an eyebrow.

Mark sighed. "Does she know what she does?"

Kayla grinned. "Y'know, I'm not entirely sure. I honestly don't think so. Oh, she knows she's pretty, but . . . " She shrugged. "She doesn't try to use it or anything. She's really rather sweet. Most of the girls can't stand her, of course, poor little thing."

Mark muttered, "Wonderful. So you couldn't, say, ask her not to do it during class?"

She laughed out loud. "Ask her not to do what? Breathe?"

Mark ran a hand through his hair, frustrated. "I don't know."

She shook her head. "You'll just have to get used to it like all the other guys. Sorry."

Mark looked at her, soberly. "I'm not sure I can."

"As far as I know . . . and you wouldn't believe how fast gossip spreads in this place . . . no teacher yet has yielded to the temptation, however much they might want to. I'm sure you'll be fine."

Mark sighed, burying his head in his hands. "Do me a favor then?"

"Hmm?"

Mark said, "If it looks like I'm starting to weaken . . . "

"Mmhm?"

"Stop me?"

"Leaving behind for a moment the fact that I am also your student and not the guardian of your morals, how would you suggest I do that?" She stood there, hands on her hips, one eyebrow cocked at him.

Mark raised his head, looking at her, and grinned. "Well, I hear you are the smartest person the school's ever seen. I figure you can think of something." He sobered. "Seriously, Kayla, there's not anyone else I can ask, and I don't trust myself. Not yet, anyway."

She sighed. "Mr. H., this is a little hick town. Forest Gump would be smarter than most of them. And while she'll pretty much go out . . . and put out . . . for anyone who asks her, she doesn't ever try to get anyone to ask her. She just waits for it to happen. Just don't ask. She's gorgeous, yeah, but it's not magic, it's just biology. You should be good at that."

Mark looked at her, pleading. "Maybe it's just biology but . . . " He closed his eyes for a moment. "I can't afford to screw up."

"Then don't. You're supposed to be a responsible adult. You're probably just tempted cause you're single. Get a girlfriend. A couple of the elementary teachers are new this year, too, and single."

He said, "I don't intend to screw up. Just tell me if you think I'm being stupid?"

"Uh . . . now? Come on, it's really not that big of deal."

Mark sighed. "Maybe not. Maybe I'm just overly nervous."

"Quite possibly. Just avoid situations where you'd be tempted. Don't, say, offer to have her come over to your house for tutoring or anything."

Mark nodded. "I'm not stupid. Just worried what happens next time there's a party."

"Not likely to be one there again. The guys really do try to have their parties away from people's houses. It's safest, anyway. Gotta get to class. See you in algebra."

"See you." He'd ended up tapped for math, as well, since he was most qualified for it.

The rest of the morning went fairly well. He did see Kristen in the hall several times, and every time he saw her, she was with a different boy, most of them juniors or seniors.

He was sitting in the teachers lounge, eating his lunch, when there was a knock on the door.

He opened it, and Kristen jumped back, startled. "Oh! Sorry, Mr. Hasseran, I was looking for Ms. Stephen, is she in there?"

Mark shook his head, suddenly incredibly aware that the lounge was empty aside from him. "I'm afraid not. Is there something I can help you with?"

"Oh. I thought this was her break hour. I needed to talk to her about supplies." She looked extremely disappointed. Extremely.

Mark said, "Anything I can help with?" He was struck by a sudden urge to do whatever it took to wipe the sad look off of her face.

"Um. N...no. I don't think so. She probably can't either, really. I should just drop art." She blushed brightly.

Mark pursed his lips slightly. "Why don't you tell me what the problem is, Kristen?"

She looked at the floor and scuffed the carpet with her toe. "It's no big deal. I'm sorry for interrupting your break."

Mark shook his head. "Please, Kristen. Tell me what the problem is."

She sighed. "It's just . . . well, her class is optional, but I really wanted to take it, but . . . you've got to have all the extra supplies, and they're expensive. I just wanted to see if, like, the school had any extras. Y'know, to help out students who are . . . " her voice trailed off and she wouldn't look at him. She seemed totally mortified.

Mark thought for a moment, no longer. "Kristen, I haven't looked at anything related to the art classes. What exactly do you have to have, and how much do they cost?"

"You've got to have a sketch book, and a newsprint pad, and inks, and charcoals, and brushes, and some things that I don't even know what they are, but the store orders them and has them in a bundle for sale and it's $83, and I just don't have it." Her eyes flickered up from the floor, meeting his for a bare second before dropping again. "And I really wanted to take the class. Art is the only thing I'm really any good at."

Mark nodded. "Would you wait right here for a little bit? I'll be right back."

"Um, okay."

Mark headed down to the school store, which was little more than a small room off of the main office where students could buy certain supplies as well as things with the school logo on them.

The secretary smiled at him. "Hi, Mark, is there a problem?"

Mark glanced around, making sure no students could hear, then said, "Well, I've got a student who's got a bit of a problem. She wants to take art but can't afford the supplies."

"Mmm. That is a problem. I assume you mean Ms. Stephen's advanced art class? That's the only one which requires extra supplies. They are a bit high."

Mark nodded. "She said it was $83?"

"I'm afraid so. We have to have them shipped down here from the city. Anita says they're all absolutely necessary for what she teaches, but sometimes I just don't think she understands what it's really like in a small town like this." The secretary sighed, shaking her head a little.

Mark pulled out his checkbook. "Well, in this case . . . I've got a little spare money." He wrote out a check. "How much of that $83 is shipping costs?"

"Oh, only about ten dollars worth. The supplies themselves really are pricey. Are you sure you want to do that, though? Being teased for being the teacher's pet is no fun, and as you said 'she', some nasty rumors could get started real easy."

Mark nodded. "That's why I made sure that nobody else was in here. I'm going to make sure nobody knows that I purchased them for her -- I'm actually going to go back and give her the check to bring in here. I just wanted you to see me writing it out, so that you knew it was legit."

She shrugged. "It's up to you, of course, just warning you. Okay, I'll take the check."

Mark said, "And, frankly, from what I've seen . . . well. I'd suspect that simply talking to her could start some nasty rumors."

"Oh? Ah. It must be Kristen. Poor girl."

Mark nodded. "Indeed."

"Alright. I won't say a thing to anyone. I know how much the poor little thing wanted to take that class, and there's no way that father of hers would bother to give her the money." The secretary sighed again.

"Thanks. I . . . well, she said that art was the only thing she's good at. I don't know about that, but she should have the chance."

She nodded. "She is good at art, though she's not a bad student, really, in anything."

"She's in my Chemistry class, and she seemed to follow as well as most of them."

"Oh, she does. She's just not real interested in things. Probably her life is all mapped out."

Mark raised an eyebrow. "Mapped out?"

The secretary's voice was somewhat bitter. "Her father's a controlling bastard, but you didn't hear me say that, right? Probably has her husband all picked out for her."

Mark winced. "Damn. I hate that."

"Yeah. Nothing you can do about it though. Courts don't consider it 'abuse'. Being a total jerk isn't illegal, unfortunately."

"Does she have the backbone to stand up to him?"

"Not likely. She's a timid little thing, really." She grimaced, as if to say, 'what can you do?'

Mark sighed. "Shame."

"Yeah, it sure is."

Kristen was still waiting for him back at the lounge, looking embarrassed. He handed her the check, folded so that it was not obvious what it was. "Here's a check for the supplies. You should be good to go."

"Huh? What do you mean?"

Mark smiled. "I mean I'm paying for your supplies."

"You are? But . . . why?"

Mark shrugged. "So that you have a chance. I can't do it for everyone, but I do try to help people out when I can."

"Oh!" Spontaneously, she threw her arms around him, hugging him. "Thank you!"

Her soft, warm, curvy teenage body pressed up against him. He could smell her hair where it brushed against his cheek . . . a spicy scent, intriguing and unidentifiable. Her skin was soft, soft, soft. His body was responding without thought, and it seemed a good idea to steer her into the empty lounge.

He froze, unable to move away from the door, but not moving towards it either. Involuntarily, his arms crept around her and he returned the hug.

She looked up at him and smiled, then kissed his cheek. "Thank you, you're such a sweetheart!"

He swallowed, unable to speak, as she let go of him and started to move away, happy and bouncing. "Wait!" he blurted.

She hesitated, turning back to him. "Yes, Mr. Hasseran?"

Mark frantically racked his brain for an excuse to keep talking. "You know, you don't have to live your life according to anyone else's plan."

"Huh? Sorry?"

"I'm just saying that you don't have to do things just because someone expects you to. You should make your own decisions."

She smiled, looking slightly confused. "Okay, I guess. Where'd that come from?"

"Come on into the lounge. It's half an hour til next period; I'll explain." Mark couldn't believe what he'd just said.

"Uh . . . okay." She followed him into the lounge and he closed the door behind her, sitting on the couch and looking at him expectantly.

Mark tried to figure out just what the hell he was doing there. "I'm just . . . look. Just because your father, or someone else, plans out your life for you . . . you don't have to follow that plan. There are scholarships. If you are actually good at art, you should try for one." He realized suddenly that, without any conscious thought, he'd sat down on the couch next to her. He frantically tried to get control of his actions.

"Oh, is that what you thought? That old gossip? Mr. Hasseran, my dad really doesn't care what I do, as long as I don't bother him with it. I plan on going to college, really I do, and I have thought about an art scholarship. You're sweet for worrying, but it's really not necessary." She smiled and leaned forward, laying her hand over his, squeezing.

Mark swallowed, hard.

"Is that all you were worried about? My dad?"

Mark nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

She smiled again, melting his resistance further. "Don't be. Yeah, he's not around a lot, but he's not bad either. He doesn't beat me or anything. He's a bit uh, distracted, but he's not abusive or anything. He does love me, he's just busy a lot. And he doesn't run my life. You do believe me, don't you?" She looked earnestly into his face, and he was struck by just how incredibly green her eyes were.

He had the most intense urge to kiss her that he'd ever experienced in his life, but from somewhere deep inside him he managed to drag up enough self control to do no more than nod.

She frowned, concerned. "Mr. Hasseran, are you okay? You look flushed." She reached up and touched his cheek with one soft little hand. "You're burning up!" The touch felt caressing, as if it weren't quite innocent, to his fevered perceptions.

"You should lie down."

Mark closed his eyes, fighting for control.

"You really don't look so good." She stood up and put her hands on his shoulders, pushing him down onto the couch. "You look like you're going to pass out or something."

Mark was frozen. He had just enough willpower to stop himself from moving, but he couldn't bring himself to tell her to leave; all he could think about was the feeling of both of her hands on his shoulders, pressing him down on the couch. He fought himself for control, trying to think of anything else -- chemical formulae, reaction rates . . .

She smoothed the hair back from his damp forehead. "Just lie here for a while, I'm sure you'll feel better." She continued petting his forehead. He opened his eyes and saw that she was kneeling by the couch, her face the very picture of concern.

He regained control over his vocal chords, somehow, though he was painfully aware that what he wanted to say would get him arrested. Swallowing, he said, "I'll be --- I'll be fine. You should go get your supplies. I just need to -- to rest a bit before my next class."

"If you're sure . . . is there anything I can do for you before I go?"

His mind rewrote those words with non innocent innuendo in his head, bringing images of her touching him, kissing him. He tore his eyes away from hers.

"N-no. I'll be --- fine."

As she stood up, she inadvertently leaned forward, brushing her breasts briefly against his face. She didn't seem to notice. "Okay, if you're sure. And thanks again." With one final smile, she ducked out the door.

Mark lay there, on the couch, shuddering. No one came in, fortunately, because he was in no condition for company.

The rest of the day was uneventful. Tiring, but uneventful. When he got home, he found things to do, tiring, physical things, trying to exhaust himself. By the time the sun set, the yard was raked and mowed, the shed housing the well-pump cleaned, and the flower bed weeded.

It didn't stop the dreams. They were more vivid than the night before. More detailed. More explicit. He woke up hard . . . with evidence of at least one orgasm on his stomach. Even in the shower, the very cold shower, he had to fight the urge to masturbate to the memory of the dreams. No matter how hard he tried not to think of them, it was impossible.

He went to work very uncomfortable.

The whole week went pretty much the same, except the dreams became more and more intense, and when he finally did give in and stopped resisting the urge, he was dismayed to find that it made it worse, not better. He was beginning to think perhaps he needed psychological help.

Meanwhile, he began to settle in to the community. It still seemed odd to him. People were so quiet. Except for that one party he'd witnessed, he would almost swear that no one even left their house after dark. There used to be a bar in town, but it closed over a year ago. The only social activity that seemed to exist was church on Sunday's and Wednesdays.

There was only one church, too. A big, foreboding looking building.

People looked at him oddly on Thursday, after he didn't go to church the night before. There was some whispering and a couple of his students actually seemed nervous to be around him.

Mark ignored it.

He also noticed a distinct gender line in the community. He was one of only three male teachers . . . the other two teaching shop and p.e. . The girls took home economics, the boys took shop. Any kid going against this typing was an outcast. While the faculty was very impressed with Kayla's intelligence, there was a distinct undertone of distrust about it, too, and disapproval, as if they'd have felt better if she were good at art instead of physics. And they wouldn't allow her to take shop. She wasn't forbidden officially, of course . . . officially the class conflicted with something she wanted to take more.

He'd expected this, sort of, in a small town, but not to this extent. Most of the girls even wore dresses on most days rather than jeans. It was odd.

Midweek a boy joined his class. He was taking typing, but dropped it for unexplained reasons. Rumor had that the black eye he was sporting came from a bunch of the more aggressive types 'teaching the little faggot a lesson'. Chemistry was safer than typing, apparently.

As far as Mark could tell, the rumors were true. No proof, just a girl who said her boyfriend's best friend bragged about it, bits and pieces here and there.

Friday night, Mark was eating dinner and grading papers when he heard what sounded like a woman crying upstairs. He frowned, wondering how someone could have gotten in the house, and rushed upstairs. When he got there, the noise sounded like it was coming from downstairs.

He walked, slowly, back downstairs, listening to see when the sound changed location. Midway down the stairs, it seemed to be coming from both locations at once. He couldn't see anything downstairs, but a faint greenish light shone under his bedroom door.

He hesitated, then walked cautiously to the door. When he swung it open, there was a shape on his bed, like a woman, for a split second, before it vanished, leaving only a lingering glow.

"Wait! Come back!"

The glow intensified slightly, and he thought he might be able to make out a humanoid form in it.

Mark said, "What's wrong?"

The form didn't come clearer, but her eyes did. Deep blue, glowing, and sad. She still didn't speak.

"Can I help?"

She shook her head.

"Is there anything I can do?"

It sounded like she sighed deeply, then that barely perceptible head shake came again.

"Please, let me help. Tell me what I can do . . . "

She started to fade, and he could hear the faintest of whispers, "You can't. Only he can." Then she was totally gone.

Mark said, "Who?"

No answer.

He looked around for some clue. Nothing. Just a bedroom. It came furnished, most of the furniture looked like antiques, though not perfectly preserved . . . more like things that were lovingly used every day of their lives and had good care taken of them, but were not put away and fussed over.

Big, carved oak four poster bed, king sized. Dresser with mirror. Wardrobe. Cushion topped cedar chest under the window. Matching bookshelves. Pretty, well-tended, hardwood floors.

He looked in the cedar chest first, finding two things; a white silk dress wrapped in tissue paper, and a tiny white gown covered in seed pearls, sized for a newborn.

He looked for pictures, things like that. Checked behind the mirror, under the bed, in the bookshelves . . . and found nothing.

He remembered that there were some old clothes in the closet when he moved in. Men and women's clothes from about twenty years ago. Old, musty, and moth-nibbled.

He went and retrieved the clothes from the box he'd stored them in, looking through the pockets for pictures. In one of the dresses, he found a locket. It held a picture of a woman in a wedding dress, and a man in a suit. He wasn't sure, but the woman could have been the one on his bed.

He frowned, but finally shrugged and went back to work, mentally preparing to ask better questions if he saw her again.

The next week was greatly similar to the first. Every so often he would catch a glimpse of the ghostly woman, but never for more than a split-second. Once, he was awakened from his dreams by an ear-piercing scream, but when he looked he couldn't find anything.

He tried everything thing to deal with the dreams . . . working to exhaustion, sleeping pills, meditation, masturbating until he was physically unable to get hard before bed . . . none of it worked. In desperation, he tried actively participating in the dreams, in hopes that it would get it out of his system.

It made it worse. By the time Saturday morning arrived, he was exhausted.

He was in the kitchen, cleaning, when he heard a knock on the door. Opening it, he was surprised to see Kristen standing on his porch.

She smiled at him. "Hi. Can I come in?"

Last night's last dream was still fresh in his mind. The picture of her with her head back and eyes closed, begging him to fuck her was etched on his brain. He swallowed.

"Um, Kristen, I'm not sure that's such a good idea. Rumors get started very easily."

She looked around. The road was empty. There were no houses visible from his. The only witnesses were the cows in the pasture. "By who?"

Mark closed his eyes and swallowed, hard, trying to ignore the images.

Mark said, "Kristen, if you come in here, I could lose my job and go to jail."

"Just for letting me come in? That's silly."

"Yes, but if somehow word got around, and someone thought . . . "

"There's no one here but us. Besides, almost everyone is at the Revival down at the church. And my feet really hurt. It's a long walk out here."

He swallowed again. "Okay. But you stay on the other side of the room from me, just to be safe."

She laughed. "You're so funny! You act like you're going to turn into some mad psychopathic rapist or something."

Mark said, exasperated, "I'm not so sure I won't!" He slapped his hand over his mouth. "Oh my god. What did I just say?"

She looked at him wide-eyed.

He sighed. "I'm sorry, Kristen, I didn't mean that. I'm just . . . I haven't been sleeping well the past few weeks. Disturbing dreams. I'm not at my best."

"Um. Yeah. Okay. Did you see the ghost or something?"

Mark stared at her. "How did you guess?"

"Really? Wow!" Her voice was full of fascinated horror. "I never believed it really was haunted. You know how stupid people can be."

"Well, either there's a ghost, or I'm going insane. At this point, I think it's a toss up." Mark rubbed his temples.

"Wow. A real ghost. The lady or the baby?"

"A woman. She wouldn't tell me what was wrong, just that 'he' was the only one who could make it better. But I don't know who 'he' is."

"Oh wow. Poor thing. I bet it was Emma Barnes. The story goes that her husband went crazy and murdered her and their baby around twenty years ago. They never caught him."

Mark winced. "Ouch. No wonder she was crying."

"That's why we were so surprised that someone had rented this house . . . everyone thought it was haunted. But you stayed, so . . . " She shrugged. "Oh, yeah! That's why I came."

"Oh?"

"See, it's Kevin's birthday and we wanted to have a party, but Mr. Johnson just moved a new herd into the field we've been using, and he's, like, all paranoid about them cause they're real expensive or something and some of em are pregnant, so he said we can't have our parties there anymore. And the only place that's really private and out of the way is down by the pond, but we don't want to disturb you or anything so the guys wanted me to ask you if maybe you wouldn't mind, just this once." She said all of this in a rush, not pausing for breath until she stopped and smiled at him hopefully.

Mark grinned. "Sure. Heck, just for giving me a reason to think I'm maybe not going insane I'd agree even if I minded, but I don't anyway. Just -- no alcohol or pot or anything. If I saw anything like that, well, you know the law."

"Um. Okay. No one here smokes pot anyway, you know. You really don't mind?"

Mark shrugged. "No, not really." He nods his head towards a shed out back. "I've got a good telescope out back, by the way. Let me know if anyone wants to take a look through it. The moon should be good viewing."

"Thanks! They'll be so glad. It's a great spot. Flat ground, not too many cows, the pond for warm weather . . . " She shifted nervously and blushed. "Um."

Mark raised an eyebrow.

She unzipped her backpack and pulled out a sheet of thick paper. "I..um . . . well, since you bought me the supplies, I thought it'd be nice to do something . . . anyway, I drew this for you. It's not great, but I thought you might like it." She handed him the sheet.

It was him. Sort of. It was extremely good, done in charcoal. He was standing on the deck of a ship, wearing the standard romantic pirate outfit of tight trousers, boots, and a curvy sword. His hair was blowing in the wind and the look on his face could only be described as 'smoldering'.

Mark said, "You are good. Very good. This is amazing." He stared at the picture.

She blushed and ducked her head, peeking at him through her eyelashes. "You really like it?"

Mark nodded. "I do." He hesitated, trying to make up his mind. "Kristen, could I talk to you about something for a minute? Something that could get me in a lot of trouble if you were offended, or someone else found out and got the wrong impression?"

"Well, sure, if you want to."

Mark settled back, looking at her curiously. "Kristen, do you have any idea of the effect you have on people?"

"Huh? What do you mean, Mr. Hasseran?"

Mark chuckled. "You really don't, do you?"

She looked at him, confused.

Mark said, "Please don't take this the wrong way, but you are probably the single most sexually appealing woman I've ever seen. And I am not normally attracted to underage girls. I've watched, and you have the same effect on most of the guys -- both students and teachers -- at school. And some of the women. And you really aren't doing it on purpose?"

Her mouth dropped open and her blush deepened to blood-red.

"Apparently not."

"I'm not d..doing anything!" She buried her face in her hands. "Oh, god, you think I'm a slut."

"No! I DON'T! I just wanted you to realize the effect you have. That's part of the reason I was so nervous about letting you in."

She shook her head, still not looking up. "It's okay. I should have known that's what was worrying you. I am a slut. I just didn't think you . . . knew. Or that you'd think I'd try and attack you or something. I won't, you know. I'm not that bad."

Mark raised an eyebrow. "Oh? You're a slut? What makes you a slut?"

"I just can't help it. I know it's wrong, and stupid. But . . . I just stopped caring, y'know?"

"Why don't you care?" Mark asked.

"And once you've done it once, everyone thinks you do it every time anyway, so why the hell not? Why bother to say no when you don't really want to anyway?"

"So you don't want to say no?"

"Not exactly. Well, I mean . . . shit, I can't believe I'm talking about this."

"That's ok. I can't believe I'm sitting in my kitchen talking about this to one of my students, either." Mark grinned reassuringly.

"Okay, look, it's like . . . the first time, I didn't want to say 'no'. I knew I should, but . . . I really didn't want to. And it was . . . good. Pretty good. And I felt so special, like we were really, really in love, y'know? Then, of course, he told his friends and everyone knew. And there was no going back. So I didn't bother to try, and when another guy asked me out, I knew what he wanted, and I sorta wanted it too, so . . . " She shrugged. "And I didn't make the mistake of thinking any of them loved me ever again. It's just sex. And the really sad thing is, it's not even good sex. I just can't make myself say no because it's better than no sex."

Mark sighed. "So you have sex when you don't really want to. Who controls when you have sex, Kristen? You, or the boys you are sleeping with?"

"Controls? I don't know what you mean. Guys ask me out all the time because they know I'll put out. I don't chase them or anything."

"In other words, you have sex anytime they want, whether you are in the mood or not?"

She sighed. "It's not like that. Look . . . I don't know how to say this, but . . . well, I'm always in the mood. Always."

"You're always horny?" he asked.

She flinched, eyes locked on the floor, and nodded.

"And you . . . can't take care of it yourself?"

"I do. A lot." Her voice was tiny, strangled. "It doesn't help."

"Have you considered picking out, say, the two or three guys who are best, and telling the others no?"

"I . . . tried. But, when they ask me, I just say yes. I can't stop myself."

"Do you have trouble telling people no about other things?"

She shook her head. "No, not really."

"When you say the sex isn't good . . . do you actually get turned on? Do you, um, have an orgasm?"

"Oh, god!" She buried her face in her hands again, hiding totally behind her hair. "This is so embarrassing. Yes, I get turned on, but I don't usually have an orgasm."

Mark nodded, slowly. "I had a friend in college who had a similar problem. She'd get turned on, but never actually reach orgasm with someone else, no matter how much time they spent with her. Until the night she and her roommate got drunk together."

"Not never, just not usually. I can do it to myself, and once or twice someone has . . . but just not usually."

"True. But . . . gods. I can't believe I'm saying this. You might want to consider that option." His face was as red as hers.

"What option? Getting drunk?"

Mark said, "Um. No. Her roommate was also female . . . "

"Oh. I have. It's just that girls don't ask me that often."

Mark sighed. "I'm sorry, then, Kristen. I'd like to help, but I don't know how."

She mumbled something he couldn't quite catch.

"I'm sorry?"

"Never mind. I didn't say anything."

Mark said, "Yes, you did."

She bit her lip and shook her head slowly.

"Tell me, please."

"I'm sorry. I just . . . " She took a deep breath. "I said, 'you could have sex with me.' But it's okay. You don't have to. I just . . . like I said, I think about it all the time, and sometimes it just gets so strong . . . I'm sorry."

Mark closed his eyes. "Oh, gods. Kristen, I . . . no. I'll be honest with you. You've been honest with me. I'd love to make love to you. The disturbing dreams I mentioned . . . were about you. There's nothing I'd like better. But I don't dare. The danger . . . "

"I wouldn't tell anyone. I wouldn't. I swear." She sounded like she was crying.

Mark said, "I trust you. But if someone found out, somehow . . . gods. I want you so bad, Kristen. But . . . I don't think it would help. You'd get a little, temporary relief, but tomorrow things wouldn't be any different, would they?"

"Please . . . you have more experience than the guys I go out with. Maybe it would be different. Please, if you want me . . . I won't tell anyone, there's no one to see." Her eyes were huge, pleading, tear-filled.

"Kristen . . . Monday morning, at school, do you really think people wouldn't be able to figure it out from the way we reacted to each other?"

"I'm a good actor, I'll be careful. Oh, god, please! I can't stop thinking about it. I need it. I'll do anything you want." She reached down and before he realized what she was doing, she pulled her shirt over her head and leaned forward, placing her hand on his knee. "Please . . . "

"Kristen . . . please . . . " Mark took a deep breath. "Ok. Will you do something for me?"

"I'll do anything if you'll say yes. Anything." She looked at him desperately.

"Close your eyes. Take a deep breath, hold it for a count of four, exhale slowly, and repeat ten times."

She did as he asked. Inhaling deeply made her breasts threaten to pop out of the little lacy half-cup black push-up bra she was wearing. Mark closed his eyes, not trusting his self-control in the face of the vision before him.

"Now, tense and relax each muscle. Start with your toes, and work your way up." He didn't open his eyes.

*sniff* "Okay." Just a tiny whisper.

"Are you okay?"

*sniff, sniff* "Yeah. It's okay. I thought about it, I'm sorry."

"Thought about what?"

"Of course you don't want to sleep with someone who's been had by half the school. You're not some horny teenager. I was so stupid. I'm sorry I embarrassed you. Can I go now?"

Mark opened his eyes, stunned, "Kristen, I do want to sleep with you. I just can't. Look at me; I'm hard as a rock. I can't believe I actually had the willpower to tell you no. You can go, if you really want to, but I think that what I was having you do might help you. Do you want to stay and find out?"

"I can't. I just can't. When I relax at all, it swallows me. And your body might want me, but you don't, and for you, they're not the same thing. And I've never, ever been so ashamed in my entire life and I wish the earth would just open up and swallow me whole." Tears trickled down her face.

Mark reached out and took her hand. "Kristen, I do want you. If I thought I could sleep with you once, and leave it at that, I'd take you up on your offer right now -- but there's no way I could do that. If just having you near me makes it this hard to control myself, how much harder would it be if I had slept with you? And if we have an ongoing affair, we will get caught." He sighed. "Telling you no is the hardest thing I've ever done, and I wish I didn't have to do it. And I wish you'd give what I was having you do a chance."

She was truly crying now, and clinging to his hand. "I can't. I can't think. It just gets worse and worse. Why not just once? I promise I'll leave you alone after today. I promise!" She slipped off the couch and sideways in one quick, unpredictable motion and was kneeling between his knees before he realized she was even going to move. She leaned forward against him, still holding his hand, pressing it tightly to her chest between her breasts. "Just once, oh please . . . " she whispered, ducking her head to brush her lips across the top of his hand.

Mark tried, desperately, to retain control. "You might leave me alone, but I'm not sure I could leave you alone. I don't think once would be enough for me." His hand, despite his words, was caressing her cheek.

She turned her head to rub her silky soft cheek against his hand. "Please. I need you."

Mark swallowed. "I should say no."

She kissed his wrist, little tongue flicking over the pulse. "Say yes."

Mark leaned forward, pulling her face to his, kissing her. "Yes."



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