Dear Mister Sawyer
"Okay, so let's see who did their homework last night," James Ford announced to his students. "Hand 'em in."
"Uh, Mr. Ford?" he heard a voice ask tentatively. He looked towards the back, and saw Walt Lloyd holding his hand up.
Uh-oh, here comes the excuse, he thought. "Yeah, Walt?"
"Um, I know you said the paper had to be four pages…" the boy began.
"That's right," James said. "Four pages, double-spaced, at least."
"So it's okay if it's longer, then?"
"Longer?" James was taken aback. "Uh, sure, Walt. If it came out a bit longer, that's fine."
"Well…" Walt said awkwardly. "It's more than a bit longer…" The other students giggled.
"How long?" James asked.
"Uh…" Walt was clearly very embarrassed. But then, most fifteen-year-old boys lived in a state of perpetual embarrassment. "It's fifteen pages."
"Fifteen pages?" James echoed. The class erupted in laughter.
"I kinda got on a roll with it," Walt admitted sheepishly.
"Well, okay," James said, smiling. "But I only give extra credit if it's good."
The relief on the boy's face was evident. "Okay, that's cool." He held up a thick sheaf of papers and handed it to James.
James shook his head, smiling. He'd been teaching English to sullen high-school kids for over ten years, and sometimes they could still pleasantly surprise him.
James was grading papers when his wife got home from work that evening. "Hey, Cassie!" he said with a smile.
"Mommy!" a small voice called out. A little girl ran to the door and hugged Cassidy.
"Hi James! Hi there, Clementine!" she answered them. "Did you have a good day?"
"Uh-huh," Clementine said. "We learned about turtles at school today!" James smiled. Clementine was five, and kindergarten excited her.
"That's good!" Cassidy said. "How about you, daddy?"
James grinned. "Today I learned that a problem student can turn out to be your favorite one."
"Yeah?" Cassidy said. "Who?"
"I have this kid in third period named Walt," he said. "He started out the year really angry and hard to reach. But the kid's got a real gift for writing." He held up Walt's paper. "He turned in a creative writing assignment this morning that really blew my socks off."
"Great!" Cassidy said, as she headed back towards their bedroom to change. "But I hope it didn't make you forget it's your night to cook dinner!"
"It's on the stove," James said. "Should be ready in twenty minutes or so. Oh, and I invited Jack over to watch the game tonight."
"Good!" Cassidy called back from the other room. "Because I invited a friend from work over too. Her name's Kate."
James stood up and walked back towards the bedroom. "Are you trying to play matchmaker with my best friend again?"
"Well, yeah," Cassidy said. "Isn't that what best friend's wives are supposed to do?"
James laughed. "I guess. Maybe it'll be good for him. The guy's been working himself to death since Sarah left him."
Jack Shepard had been James' best friend for years. He was a workaholic surgeon who, in James' opinion, seriously needed to loosen up a bit before he burned himself out. And Jack's ex-wife was a touchy subject; he'd been depressed and obsessive for months after they'd split. James wasn't sure how Jack would take to Cassidy's blatant attempt fix him up with someone.
It turned out better than James expected. Jack and Kate seemed to take a shine to each other immediately, which more than made up for the awful fielding the Red Sox were showing against Cleveland that night.
"Another error?" Jack snorted in disgust, and took a quick drink of beer.
"And another unearned run," James added, laughing.
"What, you're an Indians fan?" Kate asked.
"James is a fan of whoever the Red Sox are playing, when Jack's around," Cassidy explained. "Just like Jack always cheers for whoever Atlanta is playing when they watch National League games."
Kate laughed. "Cheer up," she told Jack. "It could be worse. I'm a Mariners fan."
That got all of them laughing. "So how's teaching?" Jack asked James as the inning finally ended.
"Not bad at all," James said. "Same old crap from the kids every year, of course, but once in a while it turns out to be worth it. I finally found a kid who can really write."
"Must be pretty good, the way you keep bragging about him," Cassidy said.
"He is," James said. "I mean, yeah, he's fifteen, so it's not exactly Hemingway, but he's got talent."
"What did he write?" Kate prompted.
"He turned in a story about a guy named Hugo who wins a huge jackpot in the lottery," James said. "Except that the money was cursed, and it only brought misfortune to everyone around him. So in the end, he gave all the money away so he could be happy again." He took a drink of beer. "Simple enough plot, but the kid really made the characters come alive."
"Cursed lottery money," Jack mused. "We should all be so unlucky."
Everyone laughed, and James explained, "It wasn't actually the money that was cursed, though. It was the numbers Hugo used to play the lottery."
"Cursed lucky numbers?" Jack laughed. "I like it!"
"Has this kid written anything else?" Cassidy asked.
"Yeah, this is the third creative writing assignment I've given them," James said. "His first two stories were fairly well-written, but kind of grim." He took another drink of his beer, and said, "The first one was about a policewoman who got shot in the line of duty while she was pregnant, and lost her baby. After she recovered, she hunted down the guy who shot her, and killed him."
"Lovely," Jack said sarcastically.
"Yeah, well, he's fifteen years old," James said. "You have to allow for a little bit of gratuitous violence. His other story was about a girl who blew up her family's trailer with her mom's boyfriend inside it, because the boyfriend was abusing her mom. And then the mother turned the girl in to the police because she'd been in love with the guy in spite of everything."
Kate looked thoughtful. "Makes you wonder what his home life is like," she said quietly.
James shrugged. "His parents split when he was a toddler, I think," he said. "He lived with his mother and never saw his dad again until he was about ten, when his mom died."
"That'll give you issues," Cassidy mused.
"Well, don't all guys have daddy issues?" Kate asked.
"About ninety-five percent," Jack said, chuckling.
"Really?" Kate asked. "You don't get along with you dad?"
"Oh, we get along great, when he's sober," Jack told her. "And he's been on the wagon for almost five years now. Before that, when he was drinking – not really, no."
"How about you?" Kate asked James. "Any daddy issues in the Ford family?"
James shook his head. "My parents both died when I was eight," he said softly.
"Oh," Kate said, embarrassed. "Sorry, I – I didn't know."
"Don't worry about it," James said. "It was a long time ago."
"So what were these cursed lottery numbers, huh?" Jack asked, breaking the tension. "Maybe I'll play them and get cursed with a few million dollars."
"Hold on, I got 'em right here," James said, reaching for his briefcase and pulling out a folder full of papers. "Let's see, here's his paper…" He scanned through it quickly, and said. "Here they are. Four, eight, fifteen, sixteen, twenty-three, and forty-two."
"What?" Jack shouted. Then he started laughing uncontrollably. "Oh, that's good," he said, tears rolling down his face. "That's really good."
"What?" Kate asked. "What's so funny about those numbers?"
"They're the retired uniform numbers for the Yankees," Jack said, still laughing.
"No way!" James shouted. "Really?"
"Really," Jack said. "Four, Lou Gehrig. Eight, Yogi Berra. Fifteen, Thurman Munson. Sixteen, Whitey Ford. Twenty-three, Don Mattingly. And forty-two is Jackie Robinson, which was retired league-wide. Totally brilliant."
"Is that why the Yankees always beat the Red Sox?" Kate teased.
"Son of a bitch," James said, grinning like an idiot. "That's clever. I'm giving him extra credit for that one."
The next day, James watched with great satisfaction as Walt's eyes nearly popped out of his head when he got his paper back. At the top was a bright red A+.
"Good story, Walt," James said. "Really good story. Keep it up, okay?"
Walt just sat there with a stunned expression on his face. "Okay," he said quietly. And then, with a grin. "Okay, Mr. Ford!"
"There's another creative writing assignment due next Friday," he announced to his class, receiving widespread groaning in response. "Four pages, double-spaced, minimum. Or longer if you want," he added, chuckling to himself. He couldn't wait to see what Walt came up with next.