No matter the season, the Philadelphia private school where Amanda Pepper teaches English is never a center of tranquility. But with Halloween and the annual Mischief Night party only days away, the hope is that nothing more than old-fashioned vandalism and pranks will take place.
No such luck. Trouble erupts long before the witching hour, as the school is plagued by a series of mishaps ranging from the trivial to the potentially deadly–and most of which seem to center on a group of popular seniors.
A fire alarm rings during a test; all the orange and black paint is stolen from the art room; the mustard packets are taken from the cafeteria. Perhaps more serious: chemicals and equipment disappear from the science lab, as does one of Amanda's exams and her attendance book. And the dapper new science instructor, Juan Reyes, receives a threatening message recalling that a teacher was once flayed to death by his students.
As Amanda juggles teaching, moonlighting as a private investigator with her husband, C.K. Mackenzie, and coping with C.K.'s visiting sixteen-year-old high school-dropout nephew, she tries to find out what, or who, is behind the ominous events.
Before she can unmask the tricksters, the turmoil in the school increases when students rise up against the administration's censuring (and censoring) of a campus poet. Then unrest escalates into a lethally explosive menace, and Amanda receives a warning that there is more–and far worse–to come.
I tend to discount students’ exaggerated reports on faculty failings. I’m sure they provide equally distorted reports about my classroom to other teachers, but they were right about this man; he was not easy to like.
“The net effect,” he said, “was that the alarm and drill diminished the time available to the point where I was unable to administer the retest.”
“What will you do?”
“Their original marks stand. I see no other recourse. They’re a bad lot, all of them. Infuriating. I regret passing up other job offers.”
I felt a moment’s pang on behalf of the students who’d had nothing to do with setting off the alarm—if, in fact, anyone had purposely done it. It had been known to go off when the humidity was too high, or the electrical system in the school was overloaded. “I meant about the three students who weren’t in class. I know them, and they’re good kids.”
He raised his eyebrows.
“Nita and Seth are good students as well. I can’t imagine they’d have any reason to do something like that.” James—Jimmy—less so, but he seemed contented with being a C student, and in fact, he’d told me with some pride that meant he was “the norm,” which showed that he’d picked something up in math class. His family was wealthy and he knew they’d find a college that would be a fit for his agility at tennis and his ability to pay full tuition. He didn’t have to set off alarms to meet his personal goals.
“These students are a disappointment. Sloppy thinkers, lazy, only interested in their petty lives,” he said. “If they’re so worried about college, they should have worked harder the first eleven years of school.”
I’d heard grumbles about how tough he was and, of course, that translated into how unfair he was. But that was so common as to be generic and since I was in favor of higher standards, I had tuned the complaints out.
“It doesn’t make sense,” I said. “Why prevent a retest when you did poorly on the original? Why avoid a chance to do better?”
“Not everyone did poorly on the original, just the majority. As a point in fact, as you suspected, Seth and Nita performed adequately.”
“So they wouldn’t want a re—”
“You are once again putting words into my mouth. In any case, I don’t believe that making sense is one of their priorities. As I said, there has been a series of events, this only the most recent. Pipettes in the wrong drawer, a bell jar missing two days, then back, five thermometers gone—but then there they are, in the sink. I think they do it just to prove they can. A crucible tong, sodium, and an evaporating dish are still missing, and who knows where they will turn up. Somebody thinks this is funny.” His eyebrows had pulled close to each other. “They are a spiteful group and they are taunting me for reasons I do not yet comprehend.”
His lips tightened now. His entire face moved toward its center and he lost more of his good looks with each squinch. For once, he seemed less than absolutely sure of what to say. “Who knows who removes things, then returns them? I thought once Erik Steegmuller was the one, and that girl Nita, or maybe her friend Allie, and then Seth and Jimmy. Others, too, like Wilson. Each time, I think I know who, but then somebody else seems the culprit. It’s all of them. They are all after me.”
I envisioned the seniors, disorganized except on a court with a coach’s guidance. Who among them would bother? Would think of a plan of harassment and carry it out? And why?
“I refuse to bend to adolescent perversity.” He spoke softly, but I nonetheless felt he was lecturing me.
“It might help to talk with your class about what’s going on,” I said.
He pulled back from me. Recoiled would be more accurate. “As far as they’re concerned,” he said, “I have noticed nothing of their shenanigans. I will never honor their actions by acknowledging them.”
“Maybe it’s a sort of hazing—a good-natured testing of the newcomer.”
“Good-natured! It’s—it’s anything but! It’s disruptive, and—”
“No,” I interrupted him. “To answer your initial question, no. I haven’t had any incidents like the ones you described.” I felt hypocritical, giving him only the literal truth. I wasn’t missing supplies and I couldn’t correlate the fire alarm with any of my students. Plus, I was now feeling less anxiety about that class. It appeared that the sullen agitation in English class might well be the aftermath of the struggle between the students and Mr. Reyes. He was to blame for some of my woes. I didn’t like the way he characterized them, even though they were mostly sloppy thinkers, and self-centered, and lazy.
They were Philly Prep’s bread and butter. Kids who didn’t perform adequately elsewhere, who needed smaller classes, more personal attention. What had he expected? Embryonic rocket scientists filling his classroom’s chairs?
“Thank you for your time, then,” he said, and he huffed out at top speed.
I stared after him, a good-looking, intelligent, yet unattractive man. While physics might not be his special field, he was a scientist who surely knew that for every action there was an equal reaction. And so forth and so on until, I thought, it was an avalanche of reactions, tumbling into my classroom in the form of hostile seniors.
It was hard to know who’d made the first move, or to tell whether Juan Reyes was being persecuted or was, in fact, the persecutor himself.
But I could almost see the dangerous pendulum swinging—action, reaction, wider and wider, more and more out of control.
What I couldn’t see was a way to stop it.