Nothing Ordinary by E.M. Lindsey

1

Taking a deep breath, Ezra stared at the stone-grey building looming ahead of him. The parking lot was almost completely empty, and that was because he was the only person ridiculous enough to show up just as the doors were being unlocked.

Of course, he had to believe he wasn’t the only new guy who would show up for class two and a half hours before the first bell. Other people had to be that way too. He couldn’t be alone in this. That would just be too pathetic.

As he started toward the sidewalk, an obnoxious, rumbling, popping muffler sounding off in the distance, Ezra hugged his bag tighter to his body, hoping that car was heading for the other parking lot. His chronic anxiety was bad enough on his good days, but starting a new job had him on edge worse than he’d ever been. He hadn’t slept at all the night before, and the vast amount of caffeine he’d already consumed had him trembling like a chihuahua.

He licked his lips and told himself he could do this.

“Don’t be a fucking coward,” he whispered to himself. “You’re the boss of these kids. They can’t tell you what to do. You’ve trained for this.”

Oh, if only his parents could see him now, practically pissing his pants in the staff parking lot over his fussy private school job teaching culinary classes to teenagers. Of course, he could get a class full of sociopaths who raided the knife drawer and chopped him up to feed their parents at the charity spaghetti dinner, but logic forced him to doubt that.

This wasn’t some episode of Hannibal Chef Jr. This was high school cooking class.

New job—sure. New city—he could deal with it. He just wished he could be a little more normal about it all.

He laughed quietly to himself, knowing how he must look, cackling like a goddamn loon in the middle of an empty parking lot. Maybe it was a blessing he showed up at ass o’clock. At least no one was around to see his humiliation.

Pulling the strap over his head, his bag slapped against his backside as he took long strides toward the door. The path would lead him to the first-floor hallway in the language wing, the route he’d memorized when he’d been given a tour by the assistant principal three days earlier.

Ellis Hobbes was brusque but not necessarily mean, mostly just harried with last-minute, first week of school panic.

Ezra didn’t envy Ellis’ job, nor did he want anything like it. He decided to go into teaching culinary because his anxiety made it impossible for him to function in a professional kitchen, and he didn’t exactly have celebrity hook-ups, so he wasn’t going to make it big, let alone pay bills, as a private chef.

Teaching was his only other option if he wanted to stay in his field, and the private school hadn’t required him to take all those certification classes the public high schools had demanded of him.

Ezra also hoped that because it was smaller and more pretentious—which was the kindest word he could come up with—they might go easier on him. But he didn’t have a lot of faith. He was cursed with terrible nerves, a baby face that made him look ten years too young to be doing any job, and the inability to raise his voice the moment he was confronted by anyone or anything.

He’d struggled all through his years in college, frat boys finding out that a slightly aggressive tone turned him into a fucking fainting goat. They all thought it was hilarious to torture him, and he spent six long years trying to go unnoticed so people would just let him be.

It was a disaster in the making. He was going to make a goddamn mess of this.

But it was what it was.

His hand was a little sweaty as he reached for the door handle, and for a second, it didn’t give. He thought he was going to have to endure the humiliation of calling someone to let him in, but then he felt the latch click, and it swung back so fast, it almost sent him flying into the bushes. His only saving grace was that there was no one there to witness his almost-humiliation.

“If a teacher falls into the bushes and there’s no one around to see,” he muttered to himself, “did he make a sound?”

“Uh. Do you do that a lot?”

Ezra only just managed to keep from shrieking as he spun around to see a woman with a massively pregnant stomach, blonde waves, and a smirk on her face. She had her arms crossed over her mound, and he had a feeling she could probably wield the thing as some kind of weapon if she really wanted to.

“Do I—” he said, his tongue threatening to stutter. He swallowed and tried again. “Do I do what?”

“Talk to yourself?” She narrowed her eyes, then cocked her head to the side. “The longer I teach here, the worse I get at being able to assess how old everyone is. You all look like infants, but I’m going to say…” She tapped her chin. “Student-teacher?”

He’d gotten that twice on the tour and tried not to bristle as he shook his head, attempted to dry his palm, then offered his hand for her to shake. “Ezra Mandel. I’m taking over for…” He struggled to remember the man’s name. “Mr.… uh, Suarez?”

“Raul Suarez, yeah. He moved back to New York to help out his mom—which is kind of a blessing to be honest because the kids all hated him. He was forty but he acted like he was ninety and he had a reputation for confiscating cellphones.” She pushed a collection of hair away from her forehead and took a breath like she’d just gone on a run. “And that makes you the new foods guy,” she said with some surprise, and he tried not to feel insulted as he pulled his hand away.

“It’s culinary,” he corrected, straightening his bag.

She snorted. “Yeah, no one’s ever going to call it that, so you might want to give that up now. Anyway, it’s nice to meet you, Ezra Mandel. I’m Kaila Smith. I normally teach biology and health, but thanks to this parasite,” she rubbed her hand over the side of her stomach, “I’m down to one class and praying that I don’t give birth on the classroom floor before I go on maternity leave.”

He tried not to grimace, but by the sound of her laughter, he’d failed. “I, uh…hope that goes well for you.”

She shrugged. “Part of me hopes I go into labor at school. I can blame it on the stress of my job and make them pick up the bill.” She beckoned him along as she started down the hallway. “My husband’s insurance is a fucking joke, and the coverage here isn’t much better.”

Ezra let out a nervous laugh as he followed her down the winding corridor and came to a stop at the elevator doors. He liked her, he decided, but he also had a bad habit of liking anyone who was even vaguely nice to him. He’d had a long relationship with a terrible ex, and bad friends in his past, and it was all thanks to that goddamn inability to say no to people or to set boundaries.

But Ezra was also an expert at reading red flags—just like he was an expert at ignoring them. Kaila seemed a little more extroverted than he would ever be, but she smiled at him with kind eyes and winked a little as she reached past him to push the button.

He was pretty sure she was good people.

“Am I freaking you out? Talking to much? I know I can be a bit overwhelming.”

He shook his head quickly. “It’s not you. I’m just dealing with the abject fear of being devoured alive by my students. You know, Hannibal style.” He offered an Anthony Hopkins lip-suck, and she doubled over laughing.

“Oh my God, honey, where do you think you are?” She gripped the edge of the elevator when the doors opened, and he followed her in with flaming hot cheeks.

“A private school where really rich white kids get away with whatever they want?” he offered.

Her grin was wide and toothy as she jabbed the third-floor button. “Okay fair, and look, we’ve had some real winners here, but it’s not like we’re living in DC where you have a bunch of senators’ kids who have never been told no before. There are a bunch of students on scholarships and it’s actually fairly diverse. I mean, admin can be awful because they keep their heads pretty well lodged up the coaches’ and parents’ asses, but it’s not a nightmare.” She turned serious as the doors opened and laid a hand on his arm as they stepped out into the third-floor hall. “I promise, it’s going to be fine.”

Ezra didn’t know how to explain to her that kind, reassuring words did absolutely nothing to help his anxiety. Hell, his Lexapro and emergency Xanax barely took the edge off some days. But he appreciated that she was trying—and genuinely at that.

“It’s just, this is technically my first teaching job ever,” he confessed as he started toward the room that would become his own personal space for the next two years of his contract. He fumbled in his pocket for the classroom door key which he had to keep on him at all times, and he got the thing unlocked without making too big an ass of himself.

“Can I ask you something?” Kaila said as he flicked on the lights.

The room was exactly the same as he remembered from the tour—though a bit more familiar now. There were six rows of cooking tables on either side, which would allow twenty-four students total, though the AP assured him none of the classes were ever at capacity. That was somewhat of a relief. He could probably take on twenty-four high schoolers if he had to.

Ezra realized he hadn’t answered Kaila, and he flushed as he turned toward her, dropping his bag on the table to the side of the main cooking station. “Sorry, uh, yeah. Of course. Ask me whatever you want.”

She laughed softly and shook her head. “First of all, you’ll find your chill eventually, I promise. Second, not to be rude, but… is this, like, your first job ever?”

He burst out laughing, dropping his face into his hands. “No, and it’s mortifying that you think that.”

“You just look young,” she stressed. “Which hey, I mean, you’ll appreciate that later when we’re all aging like raw milk, right?”

He grinned at her as he dropped his hands. “I’m twenty-six. And this is my first teaching job because I just got done with my Master’s. I had big plans before that to be a chef—be like the Jewish Gordon Ramsay or something.”

She barked out a laugh, then rubbed her belly like it hurt. “I would pay to see that. Like, no joke, big money.”

He waved her off. “Well, it’ll never happen. It turns out I’m a pile of overcooked spaghetti in the kitchen. My anxiety was so awful, I got fired from my first two restaurant jobs on the first day.”

She let out a low whistle, then grabbed one of the student stools and perched on the edge of it. “Okay, that’s bad. Though to be fair, my first job was at this fried chicken place, and I quit during my lunch break because it was that shitty.”

Ezra walked behind his cooking station and stared down at the long fridge built into the cabinet, and the dishwasher on the end, and all the high-tech equipment he would have never gotten if he was working in a public school. Drumming his fingers on the counter, he straightened up and looked at her.

“How bad is this really going to be?”

She waved him off, then hopped down and jerked her head toward the door. “Come with me. I’ll show you where to get the good coffee and the best place to sit where we can watch people come in. I can give you all the hot goss.”

His smile was crooked as he palmed his pocket for his keys, then remembered to snag his phone from his bag before following her out.