Read an Excerpt
It was little more than six weeks into the new school year, and already Serenity High School English teacher Laura Reed was seeing signs of a potential problem with one of her juniors. Misty Dawson had been skipping class for the past week. Attendance records showed she was in school, but when it came time for English, she disappeared off the radar.
"Was Misty in your class today?" she asked Nancy Logan, who taught history and current affairs.
"Front and center," Nancy confirmed. "I wish I had a dozen students like her. She's smart and she's always prepared. Why? Don't tell me she skipped English again?"
Laura nodded. "Afraid so, and I just don't get it. All of her class records suggest that she's one of the brightest English students in the school. She belongs in my advanced placement class. The first papers she turned in were excellent. She's definitely not having trouble with the material. That's what makes this so frustrating. It's as if she simply vanishes during third period every day."
Physical education teacher and longtime coach Cal Maddox, who'd come in to grab some bottled water from the refrigerator, joined them at the conference table set up in the teachers' lounge.
"Sorry to eavesdrop, but have you mentioned this to Betty?" he asked, referring to their principal. "She needs to know if a kid's not showing up for class."
Just the thought of going to Betty Donovan with this made Laura shudder. A problem with a potentially simple solution would wind up being blown out of all proportion. Cal, of all people, should know that. Betty had gone after him for a violation of the morals clause in the teacher contract and created a whole hoopla that had required school board intervention before being resolved in Cal's favor.
She looked him in the eye and shook her head. "Not yet," she confessed. "Which means I'm breaking all sorts of rules myself, but frankly, I'm less concerned about Misty skipping than I am about why she's doing it, and why just my class."
Cal frowned. "Are you sure it's only your class?"
"You heard Nancy. Misty's been in her class every day. I've checked with Misty's other teachers, and most of them say she's had perfect attendance all year. She started out okay in my class, too. Then she missed a day here or there, but a week ago she simply stopped coming. That tells me something's going on in my class that upsets her. Or maybe she's having a problem with another student who's in there. I can't figure it out."
"But aren't most of the juniors taking the same courses?" Nancy asked. "If Misty's got a problem with another student, English wouldn't be the only class where they'd cross paths."
That wasn't as true now as it had once been, Laura thought. Serenity High School wasn't exactly huge. In fact, until the past few years, when developments had begun popping up on the fringes of town, the school had barely had five hundred students in grades nine through twelve.
Over the ten years that Laura had been working here, though, that number had started to climb. Classrooms were more crowded, and most core courses had to be taught multiple times during the day to accommodate the growth. Last year they'd had to add portable classrooms for the first time to accommodate the overflow until money could be allocated for new construction. However, there were comparatively few advanced placement students, and they did wind up in many of the same classrooms.
"You know I'm not a big fan of Betty's," Cal said, drawing her back to the problem at hand.
"An understatement, I'm sure," Laura replied, not allowing herself even a tiny smile over Betty's futile attempt to get Cal fired several years earlier for dating the older, divorced mother of one of the baseball players he coached. Most of the community and the school board had rallied behind Cal. He and Maddie were now happily married and the parents of two kids of their own. The son who'd brought them together was a star pitcher for Atlanta.
"Definitely an understatement," he agreed. "My point is that she needs to know when there's a problem like this. As I know all too well, she's a stickler for the rules, including a few that are more in her head than on the books. Despite our issues, I do know she cares about the kids. If Misty's in some kind of trouble, she'd want to help, not just rush to judgment."
"I suppose I know that, too," Laura admitted grudgingly. "And if I can't sit down with Misty and straighten this out, I'll go to Betty. Bottom line, though, I'd rather not involve her if I can avoid it. I don't want this girl suspended because Betty's intent on making an example of her." She gave Cal a wry look. "You know firsthand that's her style. Isn't that what she did to your stepdaughter?"
Cal winced. "Oh, yeah. She came down on Katie like a ton of bricks right after the school year started. Believe me, it was not fun around our house when Mad-die found out. She grounded Katie, too. It'll be a while before Katie pulls another stunt like that."
"Then you know what I mean," Laura said, pleading for understanding.
"I also know Katie deserved the punishment she got," he said.
Laura sighed. "On some level I know you're right, but something makes me believe there's more to this, and that I need to understand what that is." She knew firsthand what a rush to judgment could do to damage an already fragile teen. If she hadn't had a teacher on her side years ago, she'd have been a high school dropout herself. That teacher's mentoring and faith in her had driven Laura into teaching herself.
She met Cal's gaze. "I swear to you, though, I won't wait much longer before talking to Betty."
"Fair enough," Cal agreed. "I'll talk to Katie when I get home tonight. Maybe she'll have some ideas. She's in that same AP class, right?"
"She is," Laura confirmed. "And doing very well, by the way."
Cal hesitated, his expression thoughtful. "You know, I can't help wondering if it's just some weird coincidence that Katie was caught skipping and suspended. At the time she flatly refused to say why she was doing it, but she must know if there's some sort of dare the girls are taking to see if they can skip without getting caught."
"I remember being shocked about Katie's behavior, but I hadn't put it together with what's going on with Misty," Laura said, intrigued by the possibility. "Do you really think it could be a game to them, even with suspension as a consequence?"
Cal shrugged. "Kids that age don't always look ahead to the consequences. I doubt that Katie did. I can think of a few times over the years when the seniors have dared the younger students to do some pretty crazy stuff. Usually, though, it happens at the end of the year, when they figure the rules are more relaxed and graduation's just around the corner. Still, I wouldn't rule out some kind of informal hazing activity."
Laura shook her head. "I'd expect this kind of behavior from the usual troublemakers, but kids like Katie and Misty? It's a shock."
"I'll do what I can to help you get to the bottom of it," Cal offered. "Kids tend to see and hear things we miss. If Katie's picked up on something, I'll let you know. The guys in the locker room occasionally let something slip, too, so if there are rumors around here, I eventually hear most of them."
Laura nodded. "Thanks, Cal. I'd appreciate it."
"I'll keep my eyes and ears open, too," Nancy promised.
"Any insights would definitely be welcome. I know I can't put off talking to Betty forever," Laura said. "I think I'll scout around right now and see if I can find Misty. She's the one with all the answers. If I have to, first thing next week I'll have her called out of one of the classes she is attending."
She really hoped to solve this before a very bright student landed in the kind of trouble that could wind up hurting her very promising future, just the way Vicki Kincaid had kept her from making the second biggest mistake of her life.
Misty Dawson had waited until after the bell, then taken refuge in the stairwell for the second time that day. She'd been there only a few minutes when Katie Townsend opened the door, heaved a sigh at the sight of her, then came and sat shoulder to shoulder beside her.
"You're going to get thrown out of school if you don't stop this," Katie warned her, giving her a nudge.
"What about you?" Misty responded. "You're here, too. And you've already been suspended for skipping class once because of me. They'll probably expel you next time."
"I knew you'd be hiding out again. You have math this period and I know you haven't been going. I only have study hall right now and I told the teacher I needed to use the restroom," she said, holding up her hall pass. She gave Misty a worried look. "You can't keep skipping classes just because Annabelle's a total jerk. Don't you think Ms. Reed and Mr. Jamison are going to notice?"
"Mr. Jamison never takes attendance," Misty replied. "And I don't think he can see past the end of his nose, so he has no idea whether I'm in class or not. As long as you let me know when the tests are coming up and I show up to take those, he won't have a clue."
"We're not in the same AP math class, though," Katie protested. "They had to divide us into two groups, remember? One of these days he'll give the tests on different days, and then what?"
"I'll deal with that if it happens," Misty insisted.
"Well, Ms. Reed is neither blind nor dumb," Katie told her. "She's bound to notice. Just tell her what's going on, Misty. She's pretty cool. I think she'd get it. Maybe she could even help."
Misty shook her head. "I can't take the chance, Katie. Who knows what Ms. Reed would do? Whatever it is, it will just make things worse with Annabelle. They're bad enough already."
She gave Katie a pleading look. "You know I'm right. You know how mean Annabelle can be. And that mother of hers is this overprotective grizzly bear who's counting on her little darlin' to propel them into the entertainment big time one of these days. Mrs. Litchfield will tell everyone it's my fault, that I must have done something just awful to her precious darlin' for her to do these horrible things."
"I still say Ms. Reed would believe you," Katie countered, not relenting. "Or why don't you tell your mom and dad and let them handle it?"
Katie made it sound so simple, as if the whole world would be ready to leap to Misty's defense. Misty knew, though, that nothing in her life these days was simple.
"Come on, Katie. I can't do that," she replied wearily. "My parents are barely speaking to each other. Mom's so mad at Dad, she doesn't care about anything else that's going on. She just wants me and my brother to be invisible. She seems to have this crazy idea that if the house is perfect and Jake and I are little angels, Dad will change his mind about wanting a divorce."
Katie nodded, her expression filled with understanding. "I remember what that was like. I was only six when my mom and dad got divorced, and I didn't totally get what was going on, but there was way too much fighting that made my mom cry all the time. Even though I hated it when my dad moved out, things got so much better after that. And once my mom started seeing Coach Maddox and they got married, everything's, like, a thousand times better at home."
Misty sighed. "I wish someone like that would come along and sweep my mom off her feet. I don't think it's going to happen, though. She's going to hang on to my dad for dear life, even though it's so over for the two of them. I don't even think she loves him anymore. I think she's just scared to let go."
They sat side by side in silence for a few minutes. Then Katie glanced at her. "What if I said something to my stepdad? I know he'd help."
Misty's eyes widened with alarm. "Coach Maddox? No way. Leave it alone, Katie. It's my problem. I'll figure something out."
"You need to do it soon, Misty. You're gonna get caught. Look what happened to me. Mom and Cal came down on me even harder than Mrs. Donovan did. I've never seen my mom so furious. She even made me scrub the whole locker room at The Corner Spa, and believe me, that was gross. Women are really messy, even in a classy place like that."
"Suspension actually sounds good to me," Misty admitted, unable to keep a wistful note out of her voice. It was almost hard to remember what it had been like when she'd loved coming to school, loved learning and books and hanging with her friends. These days the only time she even saw her friends was if she hooked up with them after school at Wharton's, and even that was tense because Annabelle showed up every now and then and set out to make her life miserable.
Katie looked shocked. "You don't mean that. You love school! You're on track to get a scholarship, Misty. It'll be on your transcript if you're suspended. Believe me, I heard all about how it was going to ruin my future."
"I know. I'm just saying, it sounds better than being here and hiding in the stairwell during English and math. I can't even go to the cafeteria for lunch anymore. That's the one good thing about this daze my mom is in. She hasn't noticed I'm bringing my lunch to school all of a sudden, instead of buying it here."
She gave her friend a weary look. "I just wish I could figure out why Annabelle hates me so much. She's beautiful. She's got this incredible voice that will get her onto American Idol someday, just the way Travis McDonald said on the radio on the Fourth of July. And she's dating the most popular boy in school."
Katie regarded her incredulously. "Come on. I know you can't be that clueless, Misty. This is because super jock Greg Bennett, the most popular guy in school, is crazy about you. He'd dump Annabelle in a minute if he thought you'd go out with him. And worst of all, she knows it."