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Isobel Johnson spent most of each class period, and half of that afternoon’s department meeting, obsessing over the message. She’d tried to place the strident voice and had ruled out suspects based on their holiday teacher gifts. How could someone give her a twenty-dollar Starbucks card, she reasoned, and then six weeks later threaten her via voice mail?
Isobel took a deep breath as she headed for the door closest to the teacher parking lot and felt her belly strain against the waistband of her wool pencil skirt. She sucked her stomach back in and recalled the language in the message. “Flagrantly Marxist” was there, as was “anti-American,” and, she thought, “retaliation.” She’d have to play the message for Mark when she got home. That would make for more interesting dinner conversation than the usual rundown of soccer practice and school-day antics. Thinking about it, Isobel let out a rueful little laugh as she walked into the dull February chill.
“What’s so funny?” Isobel looked back at Jamie, whom she hadn’t noticed was walking behind her. She’d first met her young colleague at the mentor luncheon during the woman’s first week of work the year before. Now Jamie’s scuffed Liston Heights name badge clattered against a button on her fitted gray cardigan as she shifted her backpack and threw her arm through the second strap. Isobel credited herself with Jamie’s successful start at Liston Heights High, which had just that month been once again named the top public high school in the state of Minnesota. The school’s high-powered parents usually devoured new teachers, but Jamie had made it through her first year and a half with relatively few tears and only three or four parent complaints. Of course, it also helped that Jamie herself had graduated from Liston Heights just six years before. She knew how to present herself as an insider.
“Oh, hi!” Isobel said. “I was just thinking over some of the kids’ responses to chapter six. Would you believe that Justin Williams suggested the ‘chain of drugstores’ referred to Gatsby’s secret cocaine ring?” Isobel rolled her eyes. “After that, I didn’t even ask for their interpretations of Daisy’s ‘little gold pencil.’ ”
“What do you think of Eleanor’s idea to move Gatsby to the fall?” Jamie asked, zipping her coat. They’d just spent fifteen minutes on that asinine proposal in the department meeting, Isobel staring resolutely at her notebook as their senior faculty member blathered on.
“Why not tell me quickly about the OkCupid guy instead?” They had a hundred yards or so before they reached Isobel’s minivan. She could see Jamie’s Prius parked a couple of spots beyond it.
“Oh, my gosh, yes!” Jamie gushed. “So, we’ve been messaging for, like, three days, and we finally made a plan to meet near my apartment for a drink after work tomorrow. Of course, everything is complicated by the proximity of Valentine’s Day, but we already joked about that.”
“Drinks on a school night?” Isobel couldn’t help herself. She smiled, feeling old.
“I know,” Jamie said, her dark eyes shining, “but remember the photo I showed you? He’s super cute. I’m just marginally concerned about the fact that he’s a chemical engineer. If we get married, it’s possible my dad will love him more than he loves me.”
Isobel flinched at “concerned,” which had been the lead in the message from that morning. “This is a concerned parent,” the woman had said, her voice piercing and angry. Isobel had frozen where she stood as it started, her tote bag weighing down her forearm, right foot halfway into her L.L.Bean boot. The kids had already tromped out to the van, and they were three minutes behind the ideal departure time when the phone rang. Isobel hadn’t bothered to race to it—no one they knew used that number anymore now that even twelve-year-old Callie had a cell phone. Besides, who called at seven thirty-three a.m.?
“CrossFit,” Jamie was saying now. “I mean, I suppose I could give it a try.” The two stopped even with Isobel’s minivan, a grimy “Live Simply So Others Can Simply Live” sticker affixed to the lower-right-hand corner of the back window.
Isobel reached into her pocket for the key fob and watched the hatch rise. “You know how I feel about lifelong learning,” she said. “Why not master weight lifting?”
“Maybe tomorrow we can talk about what I might wear on this date?”
Isobel threw her tote into the minivan next to the bulk pack of Veggie Straws from Costco and a flattened baseball mitt. She hit the close button. “We can talk about it,” she said as the hatch came down, “but we both know you have much better instincts than I do.”
“But that skirt.” Jamie pointed at the pink herringbone poking out beneath Isobel’s coat.
“Caroline.” Isobel smiled, referring to her high-fashion sister, her go-to answer whenever anyone complimented an outfit. “Hey, have a great night.” With a wave, she got in the minivan and headed home.
Tuesdays were Mark’s one day for kid pickup and meal prep, and Isobel knew Callie and Riley would likely be engrossed in the Disney Channel, homework ignored while Mark assembled something in the kitchen.
Things were just as she’d predicted when she opened the back door at five thirty-four.
“Hi, Mom,” said Callie as she preemptively relinquished the remote to her eight-year-old brother and smiled widely. Isobel leaned over the couch and kissed both of their heads, her glasses slipping down her nose as she dipped.
“Mmm, Riley, maybe a shower tonight.”
He screwed his face into a frown. “Bath,” he countered.
Mark smiled over the kitchen counter, where a pile of green onion slices expanded under his knife. “How was your day?” she asked him, dropping her tote and jacket on a chair. She headed toward the landline console at the end of the counter.
“Good.” He shrugged. “Busy.”
“Wait,” Isobel interrupted, reaching for the machine. “I meant to text you. You have to hear this.”
“What is it?” Mark looked up.
“It’s weird,” Isobel said. “Just listen.” She hit play.
“First message,” the machine’s stilted voice said. As soon as the recording began, Isobel could hear the caller’s breathing.
“Ms. Johnson.” A tremor underlay her authoritative tone. “This is a concerned parent. I’m calling because many community members are alarmed about the flagrantly Marxist and anti-American content you’re preaching in your so-called literature class.”
“What?” Mark exclaimed, stepping toward her, knife still in hand.
The woman’s voice continued. “I speak for a majority of Liston Heights families when I say we’ve chosen this community for the traditional excellence of the schools.” The speaker took a breath. “I know you don’t live here, and I’m not sure what you’re aiming at, but we’re asking you—urging you, really, for the sake of our children and, frankly, for the sake of your career—to stick to the board-approved curriculum.” The speaker delivered the final line of what had to be a prewritten statement. “I’m choosing not to reveal my identity for fear that you’ll retaliate against my child, but do know that I speak for a large constituency of parents, not just for myself.”
“What the hell?” Mark said as the machine beeped.
“Dad!” admonished Riley from the couch. “Language!”
“Sorry,” Mark said, not looking at him. “Who was that?”
“I don’t know.” Isobel squinted at the water streaks on the outside of the stainless steel dishwasher. “There’s that one mom who said that thing to me at the Sadie’s dance a couple of weeks ago. Julia Abbott?”
“Oh, right,” Mark said. “That thing about, like, not being worthy of Liston Heights? What did she mean by that?”
“I guess it means I don’t belong.” Isobel pointed at the machine.
“Bizarre.” Mark put the knife down. “Of course you belong. And how did that person get our number?”
“There’s a directory,” Isobel said. “You have to opt out, and I never do.” She thought for a moment. “Let me listen again. Hey, Cal,” she called to the couch, “can you turn that down?” She hit the play button without waiting for her daughter to comply and leaned toward the speaker. It didn’t quite sound like Julia Abbott, with whom she’d talked several times. She wrapped her arms around her waist and hunched her shoulders, making herself smaller. The message represented a new level of aggression, for sure. Liston Heights parents had a widely known reputation for overstepping, but the most she’d experienced in previous years had been the occasional nasty e-mail. And now there was this, plus that Sadie’s dance conversation.
“I don’t know,” Isobel said finally, turning back to Mark. She walked around to his side of the counter, grabbed a wineglass, and turned the spigot on the box of Cabernet they kept next to the fridge.
When she turned back to her husband, concern wrinkled his forehead in a way she found endearing. Isobel smiled in spite of her building anxiety.
“What did Lyle say about it?” Mark asked.
She hadn’t told her closest colleague about the call. She and Lyle Greenwood had started at LHHS in the same year and generally chatted each day. The news of the voice mail had been stuck in her throat at lunchtime, but the truth was, she knew what Lyle would say, and she didn’t want to hear it. “I didn’t get a chance to tell him.”
“Do you think you should tell Wayne?”
“Wayne?” Isobel blew a breath out of the corner of her mouth, picturing her bumbling principal. “I mean, I guess so.”
“Have you had a Grow and Glow lately?”
Isobel thought of her most recent performance review—they were stupidly named “Grow and Glow”—with her department chair, about a month ago. The “Glow” had been about using Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk about stereotypes and assumptions. The “Grow” had been to solicit comments from a wider cross section of her classes. It was a friendly meeting, but Isobel knew how quickly public opinion on teacher quality could change. She had only to think back to the firing of Peter Harrington during the previous school year for an example. He’d been a shining star one moment, and then he’d pissed off the wrong parent.
“It was pretty positive,” she said to Mark. “It seemed before this morning like I was having a good year.” She stared blankly at the television and took a several-second swallow from her wineglass.