"You're firing me?"
The morning light filtering into Dr. Johnson's no-nonsense office through the tinted windows suddenly seemed glaringly bright. The typical sounds surrounding the students' arrival at school—chatter, laughter, the occasional shout, the squeak of sneakers on industrial tile—were too loud. Even the office's blandness seemed unusually depressing—the standard-issue faux-cherry executive desk, the fussy gold lamp, the blotter trimmed with leather, framed prints of soulless pastel sailboats hanging on the wall.
Dr. Johnson sighed heavily and set her pen on the desk. Up until a moment ago, when she'd informed me I was losing my job, I'd always liked the principal of Andrews Prep. I'd found her capable, smart, tough, and fair-minded. I was now quickly changing my mind.
"I don't see that I have any choice," she said.
Dr. Johnson was fifty years old—the staff had thrown her a surprise birthday party the previous spring—although she had the sort of gorgeous, slow-to-age black skin that made her look ten years younger. She was a tall, broad-shouldered woman with closely cropped hair and dark, serious eyes. She wore one of the brightly colored suits she favored, this one a mustard yellow with big black buttons down the front.
"Of course you have a choice!" I said, my temper rising up out of the muffled fog of shock.
Dr. Johnson pursed her lips and looked levelly at me. "We take accusations of sexual misconduct most seriously here at Andrews Prep."
"Sexual misconduct?" I could feel the heat in my face, suddenly flaming with anger and outrage. "You know I didn't do anything of the kind! Matt must have made up this ridiculous story in retaliation for the failing grade I gave him last week!"
I had taught English literature at Andrews Prep for the past ten years. Matt Forrester—who was lazy, jaded, smugly self-entitled—was my least favorite sort of student. It wasn't that he couldn't do the work; he chose not to, preferring to spend the time when he wasn't in school or at soccer practice getting stoned with his friends. He hadn't read any of the books I'd assigned for class this year and the previous week had failed a test on William Thackeray's Vanity Fair, bringing his current grade down to a solid D.
Andrew Prep's policy of not allowing a student to participate in extracurricular activities unless they maintained at least a 2.5 grade point average meant that Matt had been automatically suspended from the soccer team. Two days earlier, he'd stopped by my classroom after school to argue about his grade and, when that didn't work, begged for a chance to retake the test or do extra-credit work. I'd refused.
Matt had stared at me with indolent blue eyes that drooped slightly at the outer corners. I knew many of the girls at school thought he was good-looking, with his long dirty-blond hair and fine-boned features that were pretty rather than handsome. I didn't see the attraction. I thought Matt's sneering bad-boy act was a bore.
"You'll be sorry," Matt had said. He'd practically spit the words at me, sounding too much like a toddler on the verge of a temper tantrum to be genuinely intimidating.
"Good-bye, Matt," I'd said, dismissing him. I hadn't taken his threat seriously. Most of the students at Andrews Prep were good kids, but it wasn't unheard of for one of the more spoiled ones to fall back on the old favorite from time to time: Wait until my father hears about this!
This time, the threat apparently had teeth.
Dr. Johnson cleared her throat and looked down at a yellow lined tablet on which she'd jotted notes. I knew she didn't really need to refer to them to remember the details and was doing so only to avoid eye contact with me.
"Matthew Forrester states that when he petitioned you to change his grade, you told him you would think about it and asked him to come to your classroom after school on Monday. He complied with your request. He claims that you then made a sexually inappropriate comment about the pants he was wearing, saying that you liked the way his"—Dr. Johnson paused and cleared her throat again—"buttocks looked in them."
"What?" I exclaimed. "That's insane! I didn't say that!"
"He states that you told him you'd fantasized about having an affair with a student. He claims you then offered to change his grade to an A if he would have sexual intercourse with you," Dr. Johnson said. She folded her hands together, resting them on her desk, and looked at me again. "We only have his uncorroborated accusation that this happened. I'm assuming you deny these charges."
"Of course I deny them!"
I was practically shouting, but I didn't care. If ever there was a time to shout, this was it.
Dr. Johnson sighed again, and for the first time since I'd arrived for our meeting—I'd been summoned first thing, mere moments after I'd arrived at school that morning—I saw a crack in her stony, professional-at-all-costs facade. She looked tired and, I thought, regretful.
"As I know you're well aware, Andrews Prep has a strict no-tolerance sexual harassment policy," she began.
"But I didn't sexually harass Matt! Or anyone else, for that matter!"
The truth of this was so obvious. I would never hit on one of my students. They're children. Even those who'd managed to shed their gawky adolescent bodies for the wider shoulders and hairy jaws of manhood still had the hearts and minds of children. The very idea that I'd be attracted to one of them, much less act on such an attraction, was laughable.
"Do you really think I would do something like that?" I demanded.
"This isn't about what I think. It's about what's best for this institution. And we simply cannot take the risk of having someone who's been accused of this sort of behavior around our students," Dr. Johnson said.
I stared at her, feeling sullied by the accusation. Panic began to rise up inside me, closing my throat and constricting my chest.
I drew in a deep breath and tried to keep my voice as calm as possible. "I've taught at this school for ten years. In that time I've had an exemplary record. Two years ago I was named Teacher of the Year. I have a plaque, for God's sake. And now because one troubled and angry boy, who told me I'd regret it if I didn't change his lousy grade, has made up a ridiculous and, frankly, slanderous accusation against me, just like that, I'm fired?"
Dr. Johnson was quiet for a few minutes. I felt an irrational spike of hope that my words had made an impact on her—a hope that was quashed a moment later when she finally spoke.
"Mr. and Mrs. Forrester came to see me yesterday. They're very disturbed by their son's claims. But they've agreed not to take any further legal action against you or against Andrews Prep if we agreed to terminate your employment."
Realization dawned, and suddenly it was all brutally clear. The Forresters were wealthy, even by Andrews Prep standards. Owen Forrester owned several car dealerships. His wife, Cassie, sat on every high-profile charity board in town.
"So that's it, is it?" I asked. "The Forresters have been the biggest contributors to the school for—what is it now?—three years running? I guess money counts more than the truth."
Dr. Johnson didn't reply. But her silence was as good as an admission. The horror of what was happening fully hit me. I was losing my job—no, it was more than that. I was losing my career. What school would ever hire a teacher with this sort of blemish on her record? It was the only career I'd ever wanted, and now . . . now it was gone forever. My lungs emptied and my stomach clenched so painfully that it took all of my willpower not to double over.
"Please don't do this to me," I whispered, shaking my head. "Please."
"I'm sorry," Dr. Johnson said. And although she really did sound sorry, her voice held a note of irrevocable finality.
It was absolutely gorgeous out—a perfect Florida early-autumn morning. The sky was a cloudless azure blue, and the temperature was a balmy seventy-five degrees. I felt betrayed by this idyllic weather. Bad news should summon equally moody weather: steel-gray skies, chill winds, foreboding cracks of thunder, sleet.
My feelings vacillated between numb disbelief and violent shocks of rage that left my hands shaking. I didn't bother going to my classroom to collect my personal items after I left Dr. Johnson's office. I wasn't even sure if I would be allowed to go back there. Shouldn't there be a security guard standing by, ready to escort me from the school? But there wasn't. Instead, I walked out past the school secretary, who was too busy talking to a harried mother dropping off a forgotten sack lunch to notice me, through the office door, past the few students still lingering in the hallway, even though the first bell had already rung, and out into the dazzling sunshine.
My feet seemed to be moving on their own, propelling me toward my ancient yellow Volvo parked in the teachers' lot. I loved my car, even though it was old, temperamental, and rarely had a repair bill under one thousand dollars. At least it was always easy to pick out in a sea of taupe sedans and black SUVs. It was a running joke among both the faculty and student body of Andrews Prep that the teachers' lot looked like a disreputable used-car sales lot in stark contrast to the students' lot, which more closely resembled a luxury-car dealership, full of Mercedeses, BMWs, and the ever-popular Lexus SUV. One student even drove a Bentley, a hand-me-down from her dad when he upgraded.
I never locked my Volvo, figuring no car thief in his right mind would bother with it, so I opened my car door without having to fumble for my keys and climbed in. I sat there for a long time, my hands gripping the steering wheel, my PBS telethon canvas tote bag still hanging on my shoulder. I looked in the rearview mirror once and was startled by what I saw there: My face, usually a pinkish ivory, had blanched to a sickly shade of chalk white, my brown eyes were sunken, the dark corkscrew curls I always struggled to control seemed even wilder than usual. I quickly looked away.
A car pulled in a few spots down from me. I glanced over and saw Mel Hutchinson, the terminally late biology teacher. As he opened the back door and slowly withdrew a battered briefcase, I hunched as far down in my seat as possible, hoping he wouldn't notice me.
Hurry up, I urged him silently. If he turned and saw me, he'd almost certainly stop and ask me why I was sitting there. It was a conversation I deperately didn't want to have. Not now, and certainly not with him.
Once Mel finally walked off toward the school, I started the old Volvo, backed out of my spot, and pulled out of the parking lot, the tires spinning on the gravel. I didn't know where to go. Not home. Elliott wouldn't be there—he'd told me he would be showing houses to a young newlywed couple all morning—and I didn't feel like being alone. I thought about heading to the bookstore, where I could buy an overpriced caffeinated drink and be soothed among the stacks of books. But then, glancing at the clock, I realized it was only eight o'clock. The bookstore wouldn't open for another hour.
Who gets fired before eight in the morning? I wondered. It seemed like an event that should take place over lunch or after the workday was over. Not so early in the day that stores hadn't yet opened.
Maisie, I thought, and impulsively pointed the car toward my best friend's house.
Maisie and I had been friends since her family had moved into the house next door to mine the summer before seventh grade. I'd shyly gone out to meet her when I saw Maisie standing in her driveway, straddling her bicycle as she watched the movers unload her family's possessions off the truck. I liked the look of her immediately. She was wiry and small, with short strawberry-blond hair and an impish, freckled face. We were instant friends in the way that's possible only when you're young and had remained close through our school years and beyond.
Maisie was now a stay-at-home mom to her twin three-year-old boys, Gus and Leo (short for Augustus and Leopold), and since she rarely managed to get everyone dressed and out of the house before ten o'clock, I thought there was a good chance she'd be home.
It took me five minutes to drive over to the new subdivision where Maisie and her family lived in a small three-bedroom house. All of the houses on Maisie's street were identical and packed close together in tight, precise rows. I pulled into her driveway, narrowly missing a faded red plastic tricycle lying on its side, and climbed out of my car. My legs felt stiff beneath me, as though my body had aged on the short drive over.
I could hear sounds of chaotic life inside the house while I was still five steps away from the front door. One of the twins was crying, the other was shouting something, and their dog, a Jack Russell terrier named Fang, was yapping loudly over the cacophony. I had to ring the doorbell twice before anyone heard it.
"Lucy!" Maisie said when she finally answered. She was still wearing her pajamas—red floral bottoms and one of Joe's white V-necked Ts—and already looked exhausted. She hadn't changed all that much since the first time I saw her. She had the same slim angular body, almost unchanged by puberty and pregnancy, the same short fluff of red-blond hair, the same pretty freckled face. Even though I wasn't an especially tall woman—five-five in my stocking feet—I always felt like a giantess next to tiny Maisie. Fang sprang out the door from behind her, leaping toward me, his stubby little tail wagging furiously.
"Hi, Maisie. Hey, Fang," I said faintly. I leaned over to pet the Jack Russell on his head, and he lunged at my hand, licking it in a frenzied display of delight.
Maisie's smile of greeting quickly faded, and her face quirked into a frown.
"What's wrong? You look awful. Why are you here? Come on, come inside, I'll get you a coffee," she said, rattling out the words without pausing for breath.
In what seemed like one motion, Maisie pulled me inside the house, closed the door, and slipped the tote bag off my shoulder. Her house was, as usual, a disaster zone. The debris of family life—toy trains, cars, puzzles, action figures, books, T-shirts, shoes, tissues, Fang's chew toys—was scattered everywhere. There was a bench along the wall in the hallway, presumably a place for putting on or taking off your shoes, but it was covered in bags, toys, coloring books, and a megasize package of disposable Pull-Ups, rendering it impossible to sit on.
Maisie steered me back to the light-filled, noisy kitchen at the rear of the house. It, too, was a mess. Several of the white laminate cupboards and drawers were half open, dirty dishes were stacked in the sink, cereal boxes and apple-juice containers were spread across the counters next to a messy stack of old newspapers that hadn't yet made it into the recycling bin.
The twins were sitting at the table in matching booster chairs, taking turns blowing loud raspberries at each other and laughing raucously. Whatever storm had caused the upset I'd heard while ringing the doorbell had apparently already blown over. The boys had their father's dark hair and hazel eyes but had inherited their mother's playful, mischievous personality.