Monday morning, Penelope sits on the cold tile floor of the school hallway, trying to listen as Rowena explains the reading for English. She’s having a harder time than normal concentrating. The babble of other voices fills the air. Excited. Sleepy. Anxious. Catching up on weekend gossip. “Teachers should not be allowed to be that hot.” A voice mumbles as a group of girls pass them. Glancing up, Penelope sees Gil walking down the hallway towards them. His eyes shift towards her, a brief hint of a smile. She sighs and sinks against the wall.
“Penelope! Will you listen to me?” Rowena snaps her fingers in front of her friend’s face.
“Do you want my help? Cause if you’re not going to listen…” This is one of the only things that ever really annoys Rowena. She doesn’t mind sharing her knowledge, but doing it for someone who doesn’t listen makes her crazed.
“Sorry. Really. I am. I’m just distracted.”
“I noticed. Now, back to the reading…”
Before she can continue, they’re interrupted by the sound of loafered feet beating against the floor. Monica skids around the corner, plowing to a stop by Brooke’s locker.
“Brooke. Oh my god! You are not going to believe this.” Out of breath, Monica places her hands against her knees, breathing so hard she can barely get the words out.
“What are you babbling about, Mon?” Brooke barely shifts her eye from the mirror hanging on her locker door as she continues to slather on lip gloss. “You’re sweating.” She sniffs in disgust.
“It’s Ash!” The other girl straightens up, wiping her forehead with her sweater. Penelope and Rowena both stop talking to listen.
“What about him?” Brooke returns the sticky wand to its tube.
“You will never believe who he’s dating!”
Penelope looks at Rowena quizzically. “Do you know what she’s talking about?” she whispers. Rowena shakes her head.
“He’s not dating anyone. We’ve only been broken up for a minute. And there’s no one in this school he could replace me with.” Brooke waves off the other girl as she closes her locker. “Do you believe everything you hear? God, you’re so gullible.”
“No, I’m not!” Monica is still breathing hard. “He’s dating Sullivan!”
“Excuse me? Who?”
“You know. Sullivan. That…”
“That geeky neighbour girl of his?”
Penelope and Rowena once again snap to look at each other. Rowena scrunches her face in confusion. Penelope shrugs and shakes her head. “She’s obviously delusional.” She whispers to Rowena.
“I don’t believe you.” Brooke opens her locker again, leaning in to double check her lip-gloss and hide her face. “Someone is filling your head with lies.”
“No one told me anything. I saw it.”
In movie perfect timing, Ash and Sullivan round the corner. Hand in hand. Grinning at each other. Emmette and Frasier flank them on either side, chatting away easily with the new couple. Sullivan laughs at something Emmette is gesturing about. Her laughter comes to an abrupt end as they realize they’ve stepped into a corridor of people staring at them. The silence that falls over the hallway feels thick.
“Awkward” Frasier grimaces, breaking the tension. Ash gives him a sideways smirk.
“Hey, Brooke,” Ash nods at her. His hand still intertwined with Sullie’s. When Sullie tries to pull away to make things less awkward, his grip tightens. He shoots her a smile that instantly relaxes her hand in his.
“Hey, Brooke?” His ex slams her locker door shut. “Hey, Brooke! That’s all you’ve got to say to me?”
“Were you expecting something different?” He shrugs, half stepping closer to Sullivan.
Penelope and Rowena push themselves off the floor. Penelope watches as one of her closest friends stands hand in hand with her brother. She searches her memories, trying to figure out if she should have seen this coming. Anger and annoyance flood through her. First, he confronts her boyfriend and says they have to break up, then he steals away one of her closest friends. Ash is really starting to bug her. She opens her mouth to say something but Brooke cuts her off.
“That you would at least take some time before downgrading. Do you know how this make me look?”
“Downgrading!” The word is out of Penelope’s mouth before she knows it. Suddenly, she’s in the middle of this. “You think Sullie’s a downgrade. From you?”She pushes into a standing position.
“Obviously.” Brooke crosses her arms over her chest. Her friends stand behind her, looking a little uncertain. They all like Ash and his friends. Brooke glances between Emmette and Frasier. “You guys have to agree with me. Who would you rather spend time with? A fun party girl like me or a geeky loser like that.” She thrusts her chin in Sullivan’s direction.
“Brooke.” Emmette answers.
“See! Even your friends think you’re downgrading.” Her eyebrows rise as she smirks at Ash. “Not that I’m surprised.” She won’t even look at Sullie. Penelope and Rowena both step forward. Emmette holds up a hand for them to stop.
“What I was trying to say was – Brooke, you may be hot, but that’s the only thing you have going for you. You’re about as interesting as a soggy cracker. Sullie is both cute and fun. I’ll take a girl who kicks ass at laser tag over a spoiled little princess any day. I’m glad Ash finally came to his senses and dumped your sweet little ass.”
With that, Ash steps forward, Sullie beside him, and walks around Brooke and her friends. The other four fall in step behind them and walk down the hallway in triumphant silence. Penelope steals a quick glance over her shoulder to see Brooke standing in the middle of the hall, mouth hanging open, face red with anger. Unable to contain herself, a giggle slips through Penelope’s lips. Delight flushes her cheeks, making her so happy she forgets her annoyance at Ash and Sullie. They push through the doors to the quad as laughter erupts from all of them.
“Did you see her face!” Rowena slaps Emmette on the shoulder. “Seriously dude, you are awesome.” She sinks down onto the picnic table, unable to control her laughter.
“I know! Where did that come from?” Ash turns to his best friend.
“Shit man, I’ve been holding that in for a long damn time.” He shrugs, “It was nice to finally be able to say it.”
“So,” Sullivan steps away from Ash and towards her girlfriends, “Um, I wanted to tell you that Ash and I are dating. Not quite like that, but here we are.” Her face, and voice, uncertain as an awkward smile spreads across her face. Ash’s laughter stops as he turns towards his sister. He has no idea how she will take this news.
“So you are.” Penelope straightens up. “Why is everyone staring at me?”
“We’re all kind of expecting a freak out.” Ash replies matter-of-factly.
“Well, you know, I might have, if the reveal hadn’t been oh so very sweet.” She waves her hand between the two of them, “If the two of you together is going to make her that miserable, then I’m all for it.” She giggles again thinking about Brooke’s expression.
“Thank god.” Sullie sighs with relief.
“The two of you are so stubborn, would it make a difference if I wasn’t?”
“Nope.” Ash smiles at his sister and wraps his arms around his girlfriend’s waist. Sullie smiles back at him, raising up on her tip toes to kiss his cheek.
“Although, that …” Penelope holds up a finger, mock gagging “is going to take some getting used to.”
“You think that’s bad?” Ash teases his sister by pulling Sullivan in for a deep kiss.
“Huh, who knew geek-girls could be that sexy.” Emmette mutters to himself as he plops down onto the picnic table.
“You have no idea what you’re missing by resigning yourself to those plastic little girls inside.” Rowena’s mouth hitches up in one corner as she pats his knee and pushes up from her seat. “Time for class.” She disappears through the door as the bell sounds, the others quickly following behind. The three girls wave a quick goodbye before sliding into homeroom, where Mr. Staal sits at his regular perch on top of his desk. His leg swings as he watches the girls scurry to their seats.
“Well, now that everyone has decided to join us.” He raises an eyebrow, “I have an announcement. Mrs. Richardson has taken a permanent leave of absence for the remainder of the school year. The school has asked me to stay on as her replacement.” A pleasant murmur runs through the classroom.
Penelope feels her hand rise of its own volition.
“Yes, Miss Chisholm?”
“So, that means you’re not a substitute anymore?”
“Exactly. You can look forward to seeing my smiling face every morning for the next eight months.”
She nods, crossing her arms over her chest, trying to process the situation. She’s placed so much emphasis on the fact that Gil is a sub, and now she’s going to have to try to pretend they aren’t together for even longer. She sees the look pass behind his eyes. She nods slightly and begins doodling in her notebook. When the bell rings for their next class, she grabs her books and hurries out of the room.
***** ***** *****
Ash settles into his seat in criminology class. Their desks already rearranged into their work groups. Sullie sits to his right, her fingers flying across her keyboard. He reaches over, placing a hand on her knee; the skin of his palm disproportionately warm in comparison to the cool skin of her leg.
“Jesus, you’re freezing.”
“Huh?” She looks up at him quizzically, then looks down at his hand. She brushes her fingers along his, “Not really. My legs are just exposed all day. They’re always kind of cold. It’s one of the cruel tricks of being forced to wear these silly skirts you guys like so much.”
He opens his mouth to say that Brooke’s skin wasn’t usually cold, but then decides against it.
“And no handsies during class.” She squeezes her fingers and moves his hand onto his own lap.
“This is a rule I was unaware of.” He raises an eyebrow.
“I’m here to learn, Ashy.” She returns her fingers to the keyboard and keeps typing. “Whatever your arrangement with Brooke was, it isn’t the one we have. Your fingers break my concentration.”
“These things are pretty powerful then.” He wiggles his fingers in front of his face, laughing.
“You ready for your meeting with Staal?” She asks, changing the subject.
“For the class portion of stuff, yeah. For the he’s banging my sister part, not even a little bit.” He keeps his voice low, “I can’t believe he’s going to be here for the rest of the year. Let’s get on that profile piece for next week’s edition, okay?” The news had spread like wildfire after Mr. Staal’s announcement that morning. The door to the classroom swings open as their teacher walks in, balancing a large stack of papers.
“Hey, Mr. S. You’re stuck with us for the rest of the year!” One of the students calls from the back of the room. “That’s awesome.”
“Thanks, Henry. Before we get started today, we’re going to watch a news clip on an ongoing serial case down in the states.” Mr. Staal flips some buttons on the computer against the wall, activating a screen at the front of the room. The face of a young reporter fills the screen.
“Ooo, I was just telling the girls about this case last week. It’s so creepy.” Sullivan whispers to Ash.
The video opens the mid-sentence. “…found this morning. Local officials are not releasing much information, but we have learned that Brownstone was released from custody late Friday night after it was discovered that police had searched his home without a warrant. It looks like the woman, whose name has not been released, was killed sometime Saturday evening. The candy signature was again left at the scene. Once more turning a symbol of innocence into one of horror.”
The classroom erupts with voices when the clip ends. Mr. Staal holds up his hand for quiet.
“Obviously, you all have something to say about this, but let’s try to keep it orderly.” Hands fly into the air. He nods towards a girl near the centre of the room.
“Are the police going to take responsibility for the death of another girl?”
“How is this their fault?” Emmette pipes from his desk.
“Well, they didn’t follow protocol, so he was released, and another girl was killed.”
“So Avery, you’re saying Brownstone did it?” Ash counters.
“Well, who else, they found all that evidence in his house. He gets out and immediately another girl dies?”
“Would he be that stupid? Couldn’t it have been someone else? Using Brownstone as a red herring?” Ash replies.
“Brownstone’s not a patsy.” Henry interjects, “The evidence is circumstantial, but convincing. He’ll probably get away with it because of police misconduct.”
“If it’s not him, doesn’t it seem awfully coincidental that another girl would get killed the night after Brownstone is released?” Sullie leans forward in her desk, looking at Mr. Staal for support. The teacher looks back towards Ash.
“Well, if someone is using him as a scapegoat, they would be watching what’s going on. It wouldn’t be that hard to find out that he had been released. Someone could have used the opportunity as a window, right? To make it look more like Brownstone is responsible for the murders.”
“That’s a good point.” One of the girls from the other side of the room calls out her agreement.
Ash notices Mr. Staal leaning against the wall, a small smile spreading across his face. He looks so proud of them. Ash can’t help wondering why he’s willing to risk losing all this for a tryst with a student. The discussion continues for a few minutes longer.
“I don’t know if you guys know this, but you’re an exceptional class.” Mr. Staal smiles. “I want you to keep an eye on this case. See how the different media outlets are portraying the suspect and the women. Put together your thoughts on how the different portrayals impact how a person may interpret the facts of the case. We’ll talk about it more over the next few classes. Back to your projects now.”
Once the groups have started working again, he calls the group leaders into their individual meetings, leaving Ash for last. Avery comes back into the classroom and sends Ash out. He walks in to see his teacher leaning into his hands. “We’re doing our sessions outside the classroom today?” Ash looks around the drama room full of half-finished sets and racks of costumes.
“Well, as you can see from the time,” he points towards the clock, “the sessions are taking a little longer today. It’s easier to be away from the distractions of the classroom. And honestly, I didn’t want a replay of Saturday night in front of the entire class.”
“Well, do you have anything to tell me?” Ash takes a seat across the desk from his teacher.
“She hasn’t talked to you?”
“She was moping around the house all day yesterday. So I have my suspicions, but I’d like to hear it from the horse’s mouth.”
“I hope she’s alright. This is for the best. We both agreed on what we need do.” Mr. Staal leans forward to rest his elbows on the desk. “Your sister is a special girl, but now that I’m a permanent teacher here, our relationship can’t go any further.”
“I’m glad you finally came to your senses. Whatever your faults, you’re a good teacher.” Ash grudgingly admits. “And my sister will be fine. She’s tougher than she looks.”
“Let’s get to your assignment. Walk me through what you plan to concentrate on. What are you going to do for your presentation?” Leaning forward, Ash opens the folder containing the group’s work and the two of them begin to dissect the material.