For Brad R.
© 1976 R.E. Ellison
Doris Ross looked impatiently at the clock in a manner that suggested her interest in the assignment that she'd given them.
"You have three minutes!" she said in a melodramatic way. "Then I am going to collect the papers and anyone not finished...", she looked at the boy in the third seat of the third row, "will fail. Zero on the paper, zero in the book." She tapped her grade book with her gold Cross pen once, the sound of doom.
The class became totally silent in a final burst of effort. She watched the boy in the third seat of the third row as he sat complacently, hands folded, half-smirk on his narrow face. He seemed always to be the first one finished, she thought, as she moved her tortoise-shell glasses up on her nose to scan the seating chart. Oh yes. The Edwards boy, Wayne. It was he. Yes.
But she'd given them five minutes! How could he finish in only two? She tried to put the boy out of her mind until grading time. Name again? Wayne. Yes. Wayne Edwards.
She glanced at the clock.
"All right ladies and gentlemen! Time's up! Hand in your papers!" A chorus of mewling apologies and pleas for more time met her ears. She shook her head.
"No. I gave you the full five minutes! If you have not used this time to your advantage then it is not required of me to allow you still more time to misuse. I am not here to entertain you, but to teach you the fine art of English composition, if, indeed, some of you can be taught."
"But Missiz Ross!" Mitchell Bradley said from where he slumped in his seat, "We didn't get enough time to write anything worth a damn!"
The teacher looked down her nose at him and drew her mouth into a thin line of disapproval.
"I shall be the judge of that, Mitchell. Your classmates seem to have had enough time to complete their assignment. Your inability to do so suggests your lack of self-discipline. Let me see your paper. The class might find it interesting to know what youhave written. Your paper, young man!" She snatched the ragged notebook sheet from his desk and smiled with faint sadistic pleasure.
"You're not gonna like it, Missiz Ross." The boy grumbled and slid still further down in his seat, knees protruding from under the desk.
The teacher ignored the boy and adjusted her glasses.
"'Mitchell Bradley, fourth period English' ... No capital. You have forgotten to put my name on this assignment, Mitchell. Five points off already." She glanced quickly down the page, pursing her lips in displeasure at the boy's poor penmanship and spelling. They got worse each year, these sophomores.
"'I am sitting - (one 't'.) - in Mrs. Ross's room trying to think of something to write for an assignment. She is always giving these dumb...(no 'b'...) five-minute assignments. I think she just needs a good stiff...'" She stopped and glared harshly at the boy who just shrugged. The other members of the class snickered, but Mitch only smirked with vague amusement at his own writing.
"I suppose you'll smile all the way to the vice-principal's office, won't you?"
The class fell silent. Mitch looked vaguely remorseful and raised his head, flashing her an apologetic gaze that dripped with disrespect. He was a big clumsy boy, a member of the junior varsity basketball team in line for its eventual leadership. He was a plain boy, light eyes and light hair, quite unremarkable, and with intelligence that barely made him eligible for regular classes, but his athletic coaches had made school as simple as they could arrange for him.
"You wanted to read my paper in the first place."
The teacher closed her eyes and breathed evenly, trying to contain her anger.
"Mitchell Bradley, I have seen your kind many times before in my forty years of English classes and it has never interfered with my teaching! Now you will pay for your impudence!" She rushed to her desk and riffled through the papers there, searching for a referral slip. She filled it out, first with Wayne Edwards' name, for he sat silently at his desk staring at her with a completely guarded hostility that only she seemed to notice from him. She tossed the paper angrily away and filled out another for Mitchell. Wayne had done this before; rattled her, without doing or saying anything.
Wayne Edwards, unlike Mitchell, was an attractive young man; always dressed to a long dead code of correct attire, always with his short hair groomed, always clean, always on time with assignments, never absent, never tardy. He always seemed attentive; his dark eyes like marbles reflecting brightness. He never spoke out of turn, never attracted attention to himself, seemed impossible to provoke, was unfashionably polite and never rude in manner or speech, never looked at the clock on the wall to see how much of the period remained.
He sat now, his hair combed and in perfect order as usual, his clothes unwrinkled as usual and causing no outward disturbance, as always. She'd catch him one day, off guard, talking to someone out of turn or sneaking in the door, tardy. He couldn't continue his perfect attendance record as well as consistently handing in perfect papers forever.
She glanced down at the referral. She crumpled it up and threw it violently into the waste-paper basket. She'd written the name as 'Mitchell Edwards'. She glanced up at Wayne, whose indistinct smile had grown ever so slightly, still not obvious. The others mimicked him, all staring at her balefully with their hands folded before them. She began another referral and tried to concentrate. She seemed to catch a glimpse of Wayne whispering, but when she raised her eyes to pin him, he still sat motionlessly, staring at her with a trace of carefully masked superiority gleaming from his eyes.
Karoline began to giggle but then stopped abruptly with hisses from the other students. They all sat staring quietly, each with that enigmatic Edwardsian smile that unnerved but could not be rationally stopped. Something afoot, but she didn't know what. She finished the referral and handed it triumphantly to Mitch who meekly took it in his hand and stood, properly chastised, before her, his lanky tallness exaggerated by her compact size.
"Take that to the VP's office and don't come back until next week. Now perhaps you will think more carefully before you write and say rude things about your teachers while in class."
Mitch ambled slowly to the door, the eyes of the entire group on him. He stopped at the threshold and turned back to her, a grin on his lips.
She at first felt shocked then outraged at his single word. Her temper snapped.
"Get out of this room, you insolent little snot! Get out before I...!" she shrieked. She noted the shadow of someone just outside the door, probably the principal, Dr. Nestor, who would have something to say to her later. Okay. She would explain. No teacher should have to put up with behavior like that. The shadow left the door and Mitch launched after it. She could hear the clomping of his gigantic sneakers echoing into the distance.
Wayne sat complacently in his seat awaiting her instruction. The girls all looked at him admiringly. So it had been he who had given Mitchell this chance to degrade her in front of the rest of the class and Dr. Nestor! No way to prove it, of course. No. Wayne was far too sharp for that. The little...
"Turn in your assignments NOW!" she growled, trying to think of some way to ridicule Wayne in front of the class and re-establish her authority. The students began to shuffle about, handing their papers forward. She anxiously looked over the papers, searching for Wayne's that she might use it as an example of some invented error. She received more and more papers, but no Wayne Edwards.
"Wayne!" she screeched shrilly, "Where is your assignment?"
Wayne looked small and vulnerable. He looked around himself apologetically. "It's right on top, there, Mrs. Ross." Polite and quiet.
She looked again at the stack of papers in her hand. Wayne's sat on top, its geometrically precise writing obvious next to the others'.
The bell rang and the students sat patiently, awaiting the teacher's permission to leave.
"Go on! Out!" She rose from her seat, yelling. No pupil had ever gotten her this upset before. Something had to be done.
The students filed out of the door and she heard them banging down the bungalow stair. She thought she heard cheering for Wayne.
She hated him.
"Mrs. Ross," the principal said, "This is not the first time that you have used, uh, abusive language, as it were, with a student, is it?"
"Doctor Nestor, I don't believe you know the exact circumstances. This Bradley boy..."
"That is beside the point, Mrs. Ross. We are dealing here with young psyches, easily damaged, and not so easily repaired. You are a figure of some authority to this boy Mitchell. Abuse from authority can inflict more damage to young people than you realize." He was being ridiculously condescending. She felt more humiliated than she'd expected to feel.
"Doctor Nestor, I needn't remind you that I fully plan to fail this Mitchell Bradley. The athletics chairman has tried to convince me that this boy's vulgarity is to be tolerated. I am a teacher of English, sir. I also believe in a code of strict moral conduct for our student leaders. If you understood the amount of abuse I have suffered from this foul-mouthed young heathen, you could well understand my outburst. The type of conduct that this boy displays daily is unconscionable. I am a teacher, Doctor Nestor. I believe that some dignity, some respect, should be shown to a teacher." She sat imperiously across from the principal.
"The respect, Mrs. Ross, is certainly there. Also fear. We can respect from pride and from fear. I imagine that the type of respect you would prefer can only be garnered by a certain degree of intimidation. There's nothing wrong with that, per se. But times have changed. We no longer adhere to as strict a code of student conduct as we once did. There are bound to be abuses on both sides. Yes, today's young people are rather disappointing in many ways, but we still must be sympathetic to their problems. The world is not the same place it was when we were their age. There are new and better ways to deal with students than by using the 'rod', as it were." He straightened his collar and looked down at the file before him.
"You're planning on retirement soon? You're eligible now."
"I have considered it. I'll retire when I no longer feel that my teaching is effective."
"Yes. You've been teaching for...?"
"Probably your entire lifetime, sir."
"Really? Yes." He folded his hands in front of him, looking like Wayne Edwards in a smug way. "I don't know how to delicately phrase this. The Bradley episode is only the latest in a series of incidents that have been occurring in your classroom with increasing regularity. I was forced this time to take it up with my superiors. They advise, in view of the rash of legal problems that the district has been facing recently..."
"Are you suggesting that I consider early retirement, Doctor Nestor?"
"Well ... Yes. The board feels that your teaching methods are no longer... effective... as you put it. We feel that for the good of the school and for the good of the student population..."
"Then you're giving me notice?"
"You'll receive full retirement benefits, of course; medical, dental, a pension. Perhaps you only need a rest from the daily grind of this occupation. Have you ever considered another line of work?"
She smiled grimly.
"Thank you for your honesty, Doctor Nestor. I won't give you any trouble. At the end of the semester you will find that it is the school system's loss and not mine. I don't believe we'll have occasion to speak again. Good day." She rose, her bottom lip kept still only by an exercise of will, head held high. The discussion between them would remain confidential. At the end of the semester she would retire, that was all.
No. It was not all.
Mitchell Bradley would fail, and, if she could see to it, never be leader of the basketball team, or leader of anything.
She ate alone as she always did these days, thinking over what Doctor Nestor had said. The weekend had ended and she once again had left her small dingy apartment with its oppressive silence and air of decay. She wasn't quite sure what she'd do after retirement. It worried her. She'd squandered her entire life giving to something in which she'd long before lost belief; that molding the young could mold the future. As had happened with most of her colleagues, retired and dead, the original prestige and luster of a career in education had proven, after a lifetime of commitment, to be a sad cycle of ever-diminishing reward. All she'd accomplished with her decades of effort was to grow old and unwanted.
Someone sat down next to her. The newest member of the English department, a Ms Defries, young and busy and who obviously didn't know that she preferred solitude during nutrition.
"Good morning, Mrs. Ross. Did you have a nice weekend?"
"That's nice. Um... I was wondering if you've given that assignment where the students write out some essay questions at the beginning of the semester. You use the list to come up with assignments?"
"I have, once or twice," the older teacher said without looking at her. She didn't care for that particular assignment. Too humanistic. Too many variables. She preferred straightforward, teacher-generated essay questions.
"Well, I have a problem." The young teacher tried being kind and cheerful, respecting the other's age and experience. "I had a rather poor showing on that. Only a dozen or so students turned in the assignment at all. I was wondering what technique I could use to get a better response."
"Fail the ones who didn't turn it in." She didn't even think about her answer, one as automatic as her action when the problem came up. She was commonly known to be one of the few teachers who rarely received less than 100 percent return on her assignments. Her immediate transferal and failure of students who did not return work was a matter of school legend.
"You don't think those measures are a little ... harsh?" The young teacher put her rollbooks and papers down on the table.
"Life is harsh, Miss Defries. These children have to learn that responsibility is not to be shirked. One reaps what one sows."
"I suppose so."
"The returns ... What were the questions like? Were they as illiterate and infantile as one would assume?"
"I don't know. I haven't read any of them yet." The young teacher considered simply throwing out the assignment and trying something else. She didn't want to build the reputation of a Doris Ross.
The bell rang and various faculty members left the little institutional room. Ms Defries picked up her rollbooks and left the other teacher alone. She finished her coffee and picked up her own rollbooks.
Mitchell came back in an hour. She'd assigned an essay on the meaning of being an American, due today. Mitchell's parents wanted the young rebel to be transferred to another English class. She would see that he first did that essay, so she would have something concrete on which to fail him. She would not have less than 100 percent return this time either.
She noticed the sheets of notebook paper on the table next to her; the essay questions turned in by Miss Defries' students. Just as irresponsible as her charges, she thought. She'd return them to her when she remembered. She looked at a random question that concerned premarital sex. Education most certainly had changed. She'd be glad to be out of it.
"Missiz Ross, my folks say I gotta get out of your class," Mitchell sneered at her before class, his disrespect dripping from each word. He was early. Though she didn't tolerate lateness, he often stayed next to the door until the last possible second, usually getting to his seat just as the bell ended its interminable clamor. The bell hadn't rung yet and they were alone for a moment.
"You must do one more essay for me, Mitchell, before I can let you go. We have an assignment today as well, so you will have to come after school to do the other one."
"But I got basketball practice!" the tall boy whined.
She stared at him coldly. "Then you'll have to miss it, won't you? You don't want an incomplete on your report card in lieu of a grade do you? It might harm your chance to become team captain." Her sarcasm seemed to be completely lost on the boy.
"Gosh, Missiz Ross, that's awfully nice of you." The boy smiled at her, a horsey sort of grin that was, at least, genuine. She managed a quick spasm of her facial muscles in response and waved him to his seat. He sat quietly at his place.
Wayne came next into class, followed by his steady, Ginny MacPherson. They sat next to each other, and the teacher thought that one day the girl might be his Achilles' heel, for she loved to talk. Karoline came in with her own boyfriend hanging all over her. The displays these youngsters got away with was repulsive ... as repulsive as their gutter language and their sloppy dress, she thought.
She had already checked out at the main office. She sat at her desk in room 201 impatiently reading through the essays she'd collected that afternoon. Nearly 3:30. Where was that Bradley boy?
The school had almost completely emptied by now except for the janitorial staff who would spend the next several hours methodically cleaning the entire school starting at the opposite end from hers. In fact, her room was rarely cleaned, she lamented, except after she became frustrated and cleaned it herself.
The essays she'd read thus far were terrible. Only Wayne had come up with even a decent paper. She would never give that assignment again. Oh yes. She would never have the chance.
Mitchell slunk through the door.
"'m sorry 'm late, Missiz Ross," the boy mumbled. "I was trying to call home to tell 'em I was gonna be late ... Not that you're keepin' me or nothin', 's just I thought could shoot some hoops after I finish here. You know, gotta keep in shape. Can't be team captain if I miss freethrows."
"Did you inform Coach Borden that you wouldn't be at practice this afternoon?"
"I left him a note. I assumed a characteristic lack of responsibility on your part. Well, sit down and let's begin."
She watched him slide into a chair positioned in his usual slouch. He realized that he sat alone in the room with her and straightened up.
Her hand rested on some sheets of notebook paper ... Ah yes. The essay questions from Miss Defries' class.
"Mitchell," she gestured to him, "Pick one of these and write an essay on it." She handed him the papers.
"You mean, like, right on the paper?"
"No! Write an essay using your own paper on one of those subjects."
The boy began to look at the various questions. He picked one quickly and pulled a piece of paper from his notebook. He began to write furiously, his head bobbing up and down, lank hair hanging almost to the table, obscuring his face.
"I do have to be able to read it," the teacher intoned sarcastically. "You know, Mitchell, you have very little in the way of intelligence. It shows constantly in your writing." He tried to ignore her, but she detected the wince that he'd tried to hide. She smiled.
"I'm going to lose my job because of you, Mitchell, but don't think that it will affect my judgment when grades come around." This time the little shock was quite noticeable, and the boy had to erase the errant mark his pen had made.
"This essay will have to show considerable improvement, Mitchell. You're hoping for a 'C', aren't you? You'd even be happy with a 'D'. I hope you understand my position, Mitchell. I do have to make sure that only the worthy are given chances to make any advance."
The boy bent over his work, but she could hear his labored breathing as he tried not to respond. Dull as he was, he must know where she led.
She watched him as his head began to shake and little whining noises began to come from his closed mouth. The writing had slowed down, but he refused to let her see him break. His hair hung past his eyes and she saw him raise a hand to wipe away near-silent tears.
"If a boy has a fail on his report card he can't be captain of any team on campus, can he? I also understand that if a boy doesn't pass his sophomore writing section, the chances are very good that he won't graduate with his class, and, probably, won't even get a diploma. That would be too bad, wouldn't it, Mitchell? All of that disgrace? They'd say that you were stupid, put you in special classes, wouldn't they, Mitchell? It's a wonder you've avoided that this long, eh?"
The boy cried openly, but he still refused to show her. He wrote more quickly now, with a passion.
"That essay will have to be quite brilliant if you wish to pass this course, Mitchell. I won't accept it if it's dirty or full of teardrops, or not legible. I'll throw it away if it's not neat, or perhaps just ... lose it, and you will fail this course."
The tall boy continued to write and then stopped and wiped his eyes with both hands, sniffling. For a long time he sat still, letting his lowered head cover his expression. Then he spoke without moving.
"Can I take my essay home and type it, Missiz Ross?" His voice sounded weak and hoarse, the sound of ruin and humiliation, the sound of a beaten little boy. She waited a long time before answering, rolling her pen between her fingers and smiling.
"You will bring it tomorrow before school and I will grade it and give it back to you by fourth period. And no plagiarism, Mitchell. I know your level of ability, or lack of it. I'll read your pathetic little scribbling and whatever grade is on the essay will reflect your final grade. We both know what that will be, don't we?"
Mitchell rose, still hiding his face, and walked to the door.
"Missiz Ross," he began, his voice quavering at the edge of control, "I don't know why you hate me so much. I never really hated you. Now I guess... I guess I got a reason." He swallowed many times, trying to control his crying. "I hope you go to hell." He left the room quickly
She sat at her desk and pondered this boy's demolition. She felt no pity, no remorse. It simply served as retribution for all of the other times she'd allowed pity to sway her judgment. No. Not this time. Mitchell Bradley deserved whatever came to him.
Something smacked against the door. She turned out the light so she could look out of her window through the metal venetian blinds without being seen. A rock sat next to the door, probably thrown by Mitchell. He'd missed her window completely. He wouldn't have made a good basketball captain after all then, she thought.
She locked the door from the inside and picked up the essay questions from the table where he'd been sitting. She saw with satisfaction that the table had large wet spots on it.
She left her room feeling only vindication. All right, so he wasn't really her worst ... but that was pity talking again. She could easily ignore that little voice.
As she passed the gym she felt the chill of late afternoon beginning to come.
Something slammed between her shoulders and she fell to the ground. She rose painfully and swung around to face the aggressor.
Mitchell Bradley stood at the top of the steps that led down to the gym. He lowered his hand after having flung a basketball at her. She stalked over to him, controlling her temper, for she must not lose it and ruin her chance to truly degrade him later on his permanent record. She stood glaring up into the boy's defiant face.
"What is the meaning of this, Mitchell? Aren't you already in enough trouble with me? Must you add expulsion to your failure?"
"Drop dead, you frigid old bitch!"
She slapped him hard and watched incredulously as he lost his footing and tumbled down the concrete staircase. His head slammed against the gym door and his long limbs spasmed and then lay still. Blood trickled out of his nose and mouth and she knew, even before she walked cautiously down the stairs, that he'd broken his neck. She turned and fled.
"Mrs. Ross!" The lady behind the front desk in the main office motioned to her. After a sleepless night she had returned to confess to Doctor Nestor that she'd been responsible for Mitchell's death.
"Mrs. Ross, did you hear? A boy of yours committed suicide last night right here at school!"
"What?" The old teacher felt much older now. Her hands would not stop shaking.
"A boy from your fourth period class threw himself down the gym stairwell yesterday. They found a note in his pocket that said he was killing himself. His friends were in here this morning, just after we opened up, asking all about it."
"Oh my God..."
"Would you like the day off, Mrs. Ross? You look terrible! This must come as quite a shock!"
"A shock, yes ... But ... I'll ... I'll make it." She thought more intensely in that moment's silence than she had in many years, weighed possibilities, impossibilities. "It's terrible, isn't it? Suicide? Such a ... fine boy."
The telephone on the desk rang and the clerk turned and became busy with the caller. The teacher thought over the past day very carefully. A suicide note? She reached into her bag and pulled out the notebook sheets that she'd picked up at nutrition the previous day. One of the questions had indeed dealt with the writing of a suicide letter; only academic. Mitchell had chosen that subject. It was on top of the stack of papers. No name on the question.
The note to the basketball coach? She reached into the box that had his name above it and found everything as she had last seen it, except for the note, which had disappeared.
The clerk finished with the caller and resumed her usual business, putting mail into the boxes. Mrs. Ross emptied her own box and nervously turned to her.
"I left a little letter for Coach Borden. Has he come in yet?"
"No. He called earlier. He'd found out about the boy. Says he never showed up for practice last afternoon. The first time he'd missed. He's very shaken. Not coming in today." She stopped in her placement of multicolored envelopes and flyers and shook her head. "It's a real shame, a young boy like that."
"Do you know what might have happened to that note? The one I left?"
"It was probably thrown away. We don't keep things not picked up for very long. Teachers' request. The boxes get too cluttered. Was it important?"
"Not if it was thrown away." The shaking she felt was from relief now.
She had committed the perfect crime, she thought. It fascinated her for the whole day that not one of her students questioned Mitchell's suicide, and it became even more fascinating when Wayne Edwards was absent along with Ginny MacPherson. They were probably off somewhere committing illegal sex acts. Youth nowadays respected nothing, not even death.
Her lack of guilty feelings seemed to become easier to bear as the facts about the boy's demise came in. During lunch she overheard the contents of his suicide letter.
The letter had been written quickly and with great emotion. The boy mentioned his failure in composition as his prime reason for self-destruction, but teenage suicides were usually for equally irrational or trivial reasons.
Murder was not even mentioned.
What was that in Wayne's notebook? The clip had something stuck under it.
She stalked up and down the rows of seats, grade book pressed to her chest, but the imperturbable boy in the third seat of the third row did not seem to notice her. She drew closer to him and thought that she could just make out her own signature through the thin yellow folded piece of paper stuck under the clip of his notebook.
Wayne stared at her.
"I'm done, Mrs. Ross."
"What is that, Wayne?" She nibbled her lower lip, masking the nervousness in her voice. Wayne blinked earnestly and then took the paper from the clip.
"It's a pass that you gave me to get the school newspapers last week, ma'am. Was I supposed to give it back to you? I'm sorry."
"No Wayne. You keep it." She buried an ugly thought that had blossomed in her mind when she believed that he possessed the single shred of evidence that tied her to Mitchell on that day two weeks before. She still stood above him.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Ross. I didn't mean to make trouble, ma'am."
"What's that, Wayne?"
"I mean ... When Doctor Nestor called me up to the office about Mitch and asked me about things that that'd happened in class ... I told him that I thought when kids got on a teacher's nerves she should be able to tell them whatever she has to."
"Did you tell them anything else?" Her voice remained cool, but underneath her composure, the seething humiliation again boiled. It had been Wayne who'd told Nestor of the incidents in class, and he who had been indirectly responsible for Mitchell's death. She'd missed her mark entirely, thinking Mitchell to have enough ability to bring her to such a miserable state that failure and murder no longer mattered to her. It had been this one, all along.
"I didn't tell them anything else, ma'am. Is that why you're made at me? Because you thought that I told them something else?"
"Oh, I'm not mad at you, Wayne. I'm not mad at anyone. Unfocused anger serves no purpose." She repeated in her mind, 'I'm not mad', like a mantra, over and over.
"Where's Ginny today?"
"She's at home, ma'am." His voice lowered. "We broke up."
"Could you stay after class a minute, Wayne?"
"Of course, ma'am."
"I want to talk to you about the essay you missed."
She couldn't fail him. He was the perfect student. She couldn't logically have him transferred or lose his file or trump up some charge that the administration would make stick. No. She couldn't get him into any kind of academic trouble whatsoever.
One option remained.
She looked up at the clock. 3:30. This time she felt nervous, for this time it would be intentional. No accident this time. No margin for error.
Wayne was a sweet boy, on the exterior. Except for her, who could see the destructive, pernicious little monster that resided behind the perfect manners and scrubbed wholesomeness? He would grow up with every advantage, become, after being the valedictorian of his high school class, a model citizen, a person of position and standing, in a place to commit atrocious horrors upon an unsuspecting world. She prevented that. He was an abomination. Behind that perfect little smile was a calculating, conniving serpent that would do the same to others as it had done to her, and to Mitchell.
Wayne came through the door and flashed her an apologetic grin.
"Did you find it?"
"No. I'm sorry, ma'am. I looked really hard."
"Well, I'm sorry that you had to search the English storage room without proper light, but I suppose a light wouldn't have done you any good if the book isn't there any more."
He shrugged, a beguiling gesture.
"I'll find it for you tomorrow. I called your parents and told them that you would be staying late," she lied. "They said it was all right. Shall we begin our work? This won't take long, I promise." She pulled the essay questions from her purse and selected the one she needed.
"This is an unusual question, Wayne, but you've quite a vivid imagination and ample skill to succeed at it." She read, "'What would you write if you were going to commit suicide?' That's a rather difficult question, but you're an inventive young man, aren't you, Wayne?"
The handsome boy's features clouded.
"I don't know if I can do an essay like that."
"Use your imagination. You could say, 'I'm feeling very depressed since Mitch committed suicide and ... '"
"You called him Mitch. You never called him that."
"We weren't enemies. He never did anything consciously malicious to me, really."
"What would you write in a suicide letter, Mrs. Ross?" The question threw her slightly.
"Uh ... I don't know. The usual. I'm tired of being alone, my students hate me, I'm losing my job..." She threw him a glance. He seemed not to have heard her and busily wrote. It certainly felt different than with Mitchell.
"Do you ... Do you miss him much, Wayne?"
"He was a good friend, ma'am." His voice sounded distant and weak.
She stared right through him; a small boy, not like Mitchell. Insignificant. She could overpower him easily ... well ... fairly easily ... if she ... hit him with something first... something that wouldn't leave too identifiable a mark. She only needed to stun him for a moment. The stapler? The three-hole punch? He wouldn't suspect, of course. She could drag him to the top of stairs, just outside her door, lift him over the rail, face first ... Messy, probably, but very effective. Her heart beat in her ears. She couldn't actually be enjoying the preparation, could she?
"Are you almost finished?" She expected him to take longer on this question than he usually took on his essays. It had to look good. She considered the notion of a second draft. Morbid, but perhaps necessary to make it seem authentic.
"Everything, more or less, but the name." He still didn't look up, but he smiled. He hadn't taken the essay seriously. Okay. A frivolous note would serve the purpose as well ... perhaps even better.
"You know, about Mitchell?" she said. "I killed him. I pushed him down the stairwell." It felt good to tell someone, to admit the truth, even to her next intended victim.
"Yeah. I know, ma'am," he sighed He didn't raise his head even then.
The back door opened and the members of her period four class filed silently into the room, blocking the doors. Wayne got out of his chair, still not looking at her, and handed in his paper.
Ginny held another paper in her latex-covered hand, which she read out loud.
"'I, Mrs. Doris Ross, confess to the premeditated murder of Mitchell Bradley. I forced him to write a suicide note as a class exercise and then lured him to the gymnasium where I took advantage of his trusting nature to cause his fatal injury. This crime has weighed heavily on my conscience since its commission and I feel that I can no longer go on. I will do away with myself. Signed, Doris Ross.'" Ginny lowered the paper.
"It took me a long time till I could get all of your old notes and passes, and all your comments on our papers. I learned how to forge your signature first, and then, after a while, I learned how to forge the rest of your writing. It wasn't easy, but, like you said, ma'am, I'm inventive, right? Oh yeah, Mrs. Ross. I'd better leave this note to the basketball coach along with it. It's dated and everything. I had a tough time getting it while the office lady was watching, but I knew I had to do it for Mitch. You see, I know what you did to him. I even threw a rock at your door after I heard what you told him. And I saw what you did on the gym stairs. But I don't have to tell anyone about it now, right, ma'am?" He picked up the essay questions, added the yellow note and the other document. He too had slipped on latex gloves.
The teacher stared in shock at the students around her, then at the perfectly groomed boy who led them, then, finally, at the blank piece of notebook paper before her on the desk. She lifted it up, mouthing words.
"But ... But you haven't written a suicide letter at all, Wayne!"
He smiled in his charming way.
"Oh no, ma'am. But you have."