What if a teacher’s most promising pupil is also her most dangerous?
Aspiring writer Vera Lundy hasn’t entirely overcome her own adolescence when she agrees to teach at a tiny private school. A recent murder has already put their small New England town on edge when Vera bonds with a student who’s eerily reminiscent of her younger self. Amid a growing sense of menace, Vera finds herself in the vortex of danger—and suspicion.
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Jan Elizabeth Watson received her MFA from Columbia University. She lives in Maine.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***
Copyright © 2014 by Jan Elizabeth Watson
Standing amid the library stacks, Vera Lundy thumbed through an anthology of contemporary essays, stopping at one of her favorites— “Goodbye to All That,” by Joan Didion—and read the first line, which she already knew by heart: “It is easy to see the beginning of things, and harder to see the ends.” A neat, pat sentence, Vera thought, but not entirely true. Sometimes beginnings are less clear-cut than endings; sometimes, when speaking of significant events, their points of origin are not so easy to locate. She wondered if she might be able to elaborate on this idea in a future lesson plan, putting it in a real-world context that her students could relate to. The recent arrest of a local man named Ritchie Ouelette for the killing of an eleven-year-old girl, for example—would this be considered a beginning or an ending? She supposed that would depend on whom you asked.
She was about to put the book back in its proper place when the librarian with the wobbly-wheeled book cart stopped her, saying: “Please don’t reshelve that. Return any unwanted items to the circulation desk.”
As though apprehended in the middle of a far more serious offense, Vera froze, holding the book at upper shelf level. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, taking stock of the librarian, whom she saw on at least a twice-weekly basis: crisp iron-gray hair; black horn-rimmed glasses; turtleneck under a shapeless denim jumper that seemed to be the unofficial, no-nonsense uniform of all New England librarians over a certain age. “I was putting it back in the right spot, if that makes it any better.”
The librarian’s expression grew frostier, and she reiterated “We ask that all unwanted items be returned to the circulation desk” with such grim finality that Vera felt chastened.
The librarian steered her rumbling cart in the other direction. Vera was sure the woman knew her by sight, knew her to be a respectful library patron—a regular, even, who returned her books well before their due dates—but she always regarded her with the same lack of recognition. Perhaps that was just her way. But Vera was sure that this librarian was dismissive of her because of her choice in reading materials. She was always requesting true-crime books from interlibrary loan—the more lurid in content, the better—though this all fell within the framework of research: Vera was writing a manuscript of her own, an account of a homicide dating back to her freshman year in high school.
The other possibility was that the librarian mistook her for a kid. Vera was petite and round-faced, with certain demure, girlish qualities and a bit of teenage insouciance thrown in to further muddy the picture. In reality, however, she was nearly forty years old—a fact she kept from everyone but her immediate family, who already knew the truth. It did no harm, she reasoned, to tell everyone else that she was thirty-five. Thirty-five seemed a good age to stick with for a while.
She pored over the new arrivals on the library shelf one last time, contemplating the possibility of adding a fifth book to her haul, but decided to restrict it to four this week: the copy of The Catcher in the Rye that had been the purpose of her trip, two true-crime books about cannibal killers, and an obscure but promising novel about a Victorian poisoner. Four was a good number, to her thinking. She’d once read that in some cultures the number four is regarded as unlucky— superstitiously avoided as the number thirteen is avoided in the Western world—but Vera’s superstitions were selective at best.
Stuffing the newly borrowed books into her tote bag, she stepped outside and was pleased to find the weather had improved since she’d first set out; the bank sign next door read 48 degrees, which would make for an unusually temperate walk home. In Vera’s mind, a world where the temperature constantly read 48 degrees would be all but perfect: just cool enough to necessitate a thick coat and a hat, but warm enough to keep her from shivering. The thick coat and hat were important, Vera thought, because they offered her a camouflage or subterfuge she didn’t have in the warmer days of spring and summer; she liked being covered up, and she liked knowing she could run errands with uncombed hair or the same dirty T-shirt she’d slept in without anyone being the wiser.
In such a state, Vera could almost blend in with certain denizens of her town, for Dorset, Maine, was a place where liberal-minded college kids coexisted with the toothless and the unwashed; the hip small businesses and chichi restaurants flourished on the same blocks as pawn shops and bodegas in such disrepair that the hipster kids didn’t dare wander into them. Self-satisfied middle-class people who owned or rented historic brownstones lived alongside those in housing projects. In truth, Vera felt she had little in common with any of Dorset’s residents, yet it was Dorset where she had made her home after a failed attempt to make peace with her hometown of Bond Brook.
Reaching her apartment building, she unlocked the door, climbed three flights, and let herself into her studio apartment. Vera thought of it as a bed-sit—one room, and a small one at that—yet the kitchenette, which she never used for cooking, offered enough room for her to fit a little computer table and her laptop. The shelves near the refrigerator, ostensibly installed for the purpose of holding dry goods or cookbooks, stored school-related files with her students’ papers in them, transforming the kitchenette into a serviceable study. As for the main area, most of its space was taken up by a full mattress. Vera’s mother had cajoled her to consider getting a futon—something she could roll up to look like a couch during the day so that she might entertain guests—but Vera had scoffed at this idea. She knew she would not be entertaining guests. She would rather have it be just herself, alone in her studio, sleeping on a comfortable mattress.
When Vera had moved to Dorset from Bond Brook two years earlier, she had in her possession only that mattress, some trash bags full of clothes, and a few boxes of books she had carefully picked out from the rest she left behind. She had tried not to feel discouraged by the fact that, at her age, she was starting over again: After this, everything will be easier, she told herself. Everything else I might need will come in its own time, just as things always do.
Vera unpacked her tote bag and set her library books on the floor next to her mattress and box spring. She pulled out the dining room chair that was pushed into her desk, sat down, and opened her laptop. Still in her coat and hat, she logged into her personal email account— nothing there except for some junk mail and spam—and then into her soon-to-be-defunct faculty email at Dorset Community College. There was not much in this in-box, either: a message telling faculty to let students know of half-price tickets to see the Sea Dogs play in Portland; a weekly email from the IT department called “Technology Tip,” which Vera never bothered to look at; a call for submissions to Writ Large, the student literary magazine. There was one email from an unknown sender, with no subject. Jensen Willard was the name in the message queue. Vera opened it and, by force of habit, read it quickly; Vera read everything quickly, as though text itself were something that might try to run away if she didn’t pin it down.
My name is Jensen Willard, as you probably have deduced. I guess you’re going to be substituting for Mrs. Belisle (this is for the tenth-grade English course, Autobiographical Writing: Personal Connections). I heard you taught at DCC, so I looked you up in the faculty directory there. Mrs. Belisle said we’re going to get started on The Catcher in the Rye once you get here. I have my own personal copy that I wanted to use—the one with the original cover, not the maroon “serial killer” version that got issued to everybody in class. My version has notes in it, but I will use the other copy if that’d be easier for class discussions. Thank you in advance for any insight. I look forward to meeting you.
Vera leaned more closely toward the computer monitor—she was painfully nearsighted, even with contact lenses—and reread the message more slowly. She suppressed a smile of bemusement. This Jensen Willard—a girl, no doubt, though the name had the trendy unisex character of so many young people’s names nowadays, like Taylor or Maddox or Jordan—showed a funny mixture of earnestness and reserve in this informal writing sample. Earnestness in that she had taken the initiative to locate her new substitute teacher and ask her about class preparation; reserve in some of her diction (“Thank you in advance for any insight”). Vera thought certain phrases even hinted at wit. Most striking of all, the email was written in complete sentences, which was more than she could say for some of her college students’ emails (“Ms Lundy i cant come 2 class 2day. im sick & puking” was a not-atypical email entry from a Dorset Community College freshman). She hit the reply button and started to type a response to Jensen Willard, then thought better of it. She would be seeing her in class tomorrow. Whatever she needed to know could wait until then.
Thank you in advance for any insight, Vera mouthed to herself, then thought, rather wildly: What insight? She did have what some people might call significant teaching experience: Prior to relocating to Dorset, she had taught as an adjunct at the University of Maine at Bond Brook, and even before that she had spent her early thirties earning a master’s degree at Princeton, where she’d been awarded a teaching fellowship after a rigorous screening and application process. This appointment surprised no one more than it had surprised Vera. She had not been outspoken in her graduate workshops and seminars. She did not like to call attention to herself in that self-aggrandizing, showy way that her peers did—most of whom were more moneyed, more successful, more youthful than she was. It was hard to imagine her commanding any student’s attention, but somehow, over time, she had learned to do it. And after a few devastating weeks of feeling as though she might bolt from the front of the classroom, Vera had come to appreciate certain aspects of teaching—had begun, finally, to think it might be the vocation she would stick with, or, as she joked to her few friends, “what I might like to be when I grow up, if being a police detective isn’t in the cards.”
Her most recent job—a six-week stint as a Dorset Community College instructor that had ended early when she quit to begin work at Wallace—had officially wrapped up the day before, two months before the spring semester ended, which she’d felt guilty about, though she knew her pupils were left in the hands of a good replacement. She had liked the range of students that she encountered, liked that the DCC student population included everyone from eighteen-year-olds fresh out of high school to sixty-year-olds looking to start new careers after retirement. More than anything, she’d been grateful to have a job.
But the adjunct teaching pay was not something she could continue to live off—not with her student loan creditors calling her night and day, wanting their due from her fellowship-free undergraduate days and leaving chilling computerized messages on her voicemail. These phone calls were too reminiscent of an earlier time—a time before answering machines, when the phone in her childhood home would ring and ring and Vera could do nothing but crouch in the corner with her hands clapped over her ears, knowing the threats and the vitriol that awaited her on the other end of the line.
When she saw the ad for the long-term substitute teaching position at the Wallace School, a private high school in Dorset’s affluent west end, she had tossed an application their way, thinking she hadn’t a chance in hell, even with her interesting credentials. She had nothing in the way of high school teaching experience. High school, she knew, was a different animal from college. But then Sue MacMasters, head of their English department, had contacted her. And even after Vera had bluffed and blundered her way through a series of interviews, Sue went ahead and granted her a position to start in February, covering someone’s maternity leave, with the hint of continuing in September when the new term started up.
Vera was fearful and a little skeptical of the Wallace School, for it was one of those well-to-do college preparatory schools—one of the few that was still all-female, not coed—that allowed students to design their own curriculum and offered English courses with titles that were varied and pointedly politically correct: The Literature of Genocide, The Working Woman in Fiction. The name of the course she would be teaching—Autobiographical Writing: Personal Connections—had been a great source of mirth among her colleagues at DCC when they heard about it. I’m going to think of it in the E. M. Forster “only connect” kind of way, Vera had said, and overlook that frightful personal part. Most of her students would be fifteen and sixteen years old, but precocious for their ages, she imagined. Driven little overachievers all.
Vera had many different thoughts about this—about these driven fifteen- and sixteen-year-old girls she had not met.
She herself had not enjoyed being that age. On the contrary, those had easily been the worst years of her life. They had been the years of being ostracized, of being heartbroken, of being hunted down.
Vera’s telephone, which she always kept on vibrate, buzzed from inside the handbag she’d slung over her chair. She winced, extracted the phone, and looked at the number of the incoming call: not the telltale 1-800 number of one of the bill collectors she was dodging, for once.
She opened the phone with relief. “Hi, Mom.”
Her mother’s thin voice came through the phone. She was smoking a cigarette; Vera could tell by the ragged way she breathed into receiver. “Hello, my loverly dotter,” she said—her customary salutation. “I was just thinking of you.”
“Aw, that’s nice, Mom. I was thinking of calling you earlier.”
“How are you feeling about tomorrow? Any better?”
“I feel out of my element,” Vera confessed. “We’re supposed to start reading The Catcher in the Rye. I had to get a copy from the library today; isn’t that stupid? Somehow I have to link the novel to the idea of personal connections. I suppose I could talk about how Holden relates to Salinger, or how Catcher captures the sort of voice one sees in strong autobiographical writing. I’m just glad they already read Macbeth so I don’t have to deal with that.” Vera was babbling. She pressed her tongue up against the roof of her mouth and held it there.
“I’m sure you’ll do fine, darling.”
“Well, I put my clothes out for tomorrow, all ready to go. So I can’t say I’m completely unprepared. And now I’ve got Catcher. What else could I need?”
“Just your own self,” her...
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