“Mrs. Richardson has been called away on a family emergency for an extended period of time.” A curious murmur runs through the classroom. “Quiet down, please. This is Mr. Staal. He will be covering your homeroom and all Mrs. Richardson’s classes. I expect you to treat him with the same respect you treat the rest of your teachers.” Motioning for the substitute to step forward, the principal turns to walk out of the room.
“Good morning.” Gilbert perches on the edge of the desk. “I know you all know each other, but I obviously don’t. So, we’re going to do that thing that everybody hates. Introductions. Your name and something you like to do.”
Starting in the far right corner of the room, each student stands, and inserts some piece of unimportant, generic information after their name. When her turn comes, Penelope stands and grins, running her fingers through her long, curly hair.
“Penelope Chisholm. I like to run.” She smiles politely at her new teacher. His eyes widen momentarily. A small smirk, too quick for the other students to catch, passes over his face. Taking her seat again, she crosses her arms over her chest, smiling to herself. As the bell rings to signal the end of class, she gathers her things slowly.
“Gotta pee. I’ll meet you in English.” Rowena grabs her books and hurries out of the room.
“I have a math quiz. Vomit.” Sullivan looks green as she heads towards the door.
“Well, this was an unexpected surprise.” The voice is quiet, even though the owner is standing right in front of her.
“Aren’t surprises always unexpected?” Penelope looks up at her new teacher, the side of her mouth hitching up into a smart-ass smile.
“Are you going to be on my case the entire time I’m here?” His hands press flat on the tabletop.
“You wish.” She lowers her voice, leaning towards him. A big grin breaks across her face as she tucks her books under her arm. The noise level rises as students for the next class start flooding through the door. Tapping his hand gently, she steps away, “Good luck.” She’s out of the classroom before he can respond.
Sinking into her chair in English, she releases a giant sigh. She picks up her book and tries to concentrate on getting through the pages she still hasn’t read. As the bell rings, Rowena slips through the door and drops into the seat behind her.
“Dude, how weird is it that our new teacher is your hot guy.” She whispers, leaning as far forward in her desk as she can.
“I know, right!?” Penelope turns sideways in her desk. “So weird.”
“He is mofoing gorgeous. Maybe…”
“Class is starting.” Their teacher calls from the front of the room. “Put everything away except a pen and your novel. We’re having a quiz. You can use your book as a reference, but not your notes.”
“Fan-freaking-tastic.” Penelope mumbles to herself, tossing her binder into the basket under the seat. The quiz sheet glides to her desk with a heavy thump.
***** ***** *****
Sliding into an empty desk in the middle of the room, Ash slumps down in the seat. His foot begins to tap out a rhythm on the leg of the seat in front of him. A loose nail in the back of the empty chair rattles its own rhythm, adding an unexpected percussion. A jagged piece of skin on the edge of his thumb catches his attention. Pulling at it with his teeth, his mind wanders to his sister. Her attitude towards his girlfriend is moving from annoyance into an actual problem. Brooke has always been completely oblivious to the way Penelope feels about her. Ash has gone out of his way to make sure that she doesn’t realize how much his sister dislikes her.
His fingers tap rapidly against the desk. Penelope used to tolerate Brooke, before she cheated on Ash six months after they started dating. But this was something they had worked through a long time ago. They’d worked it out and had been together for more than two years, but for some reason, Penelope’s been holding onto her grudge.
“Hey, douche.” A foot kicks his chair, jarring him out of his revere. “Where’s your head?” Ash’s oldest friend, Emmette, slides into the seat in front of him.
“My sister.” Ash mumbles, still distracted.
“Mine, too” Emmette groans.
“Dude, gross, she’s my sister.”
“She’s also hot.”
“You are not allowed to date my sister.”
“I don’t want to ‘date’ your sister.” His fingers hook air quotes.
“Fine. You are not, as you so pleasantly stated last week, allowed to plow my sister silly.”
“Oh come on. It would help her loosen up. And you know she…”
“Stuff it, Em!”
“That’s the plan.” His eyebrows bounce on his forehead
“Jesus! Enough.” Ash laughs “I guess I walked into that.” Their laughter subsides as the door at the front of the class opens and an unknown man walks through.
“Good morning, class. I’m Mr. Staal.” He takes a seat on the edge of the desk, “I’ll be filling in while Mrs. Richardson is away.”
Ash hears deep inhales from several of the girls around him. The girl directly behind him mumbles to her friend “Yummy”. The whispers subside as the introductions begin. Emmette stands, announces he’s the rugby captain, and sits again. Then it’s Ash’s turn.
“Ash Chisholm. Editor of the school paper.” Teachers are always impressed that he’s the editor. It tends to make them leave him to his own devices.
“Chisholm? Are related to Penelope?” He notices the teacher’s mouth twitch reflexively. Instantly, a wave of distaste washes over Ash.
“Yup.” His voice is flat. His eyes suspicious.
“Twin.” Ash sits, ending his turn. He watches the new teacher more closely as the remaining students make their introductions. No one else seems to spark Mr. Staal’s interest the same way. He asks a few other students some perfunctory follow up questions. Every so often, his eyes dart almost unnoticeably back to Ash. The pen in Ash’s hand flips from finger to finger.
Mr. Staal pushes himself off the edge of the desk “Since you guys just finished a chapter, and this is an advanced Criminology class, we’re going to move some things around in the syllabus and try something new. I’m sure Mrs. Richardson was teaching a very, um, stimulating class,” he pauses as the class chuckles, “But, I’ve never had the chance to teach a class in the area I specialized in, so I want to see what you guys are made of.” He walks up to the board, dividing it into four separate blocks. “We’re going to be doing group work, so… Gemma come stand here. Avery here. James here, and hmmm, Ash, you’re here.”
The four students walk to the front of the room and stands in front of a section of the board taking a marker from the substitute. He directs them to pick the members of their team and list them in their square. They take a few minutes to divide up class. Ash gets to choose first so he snags Sullivan before anyone else can. Her research skills are infamous. When they’re done, Mr. Staal explains the assignment.
“We’re going to be studying serial killers and the personas attributed to them by the media.” An excited murmur runs through the class. “Each group will be assigned a specific person to study. Unfortunately, we live in a time when there are way too many serial killers, with too many different motivations, for you to pick your own. And even thought this is as AP class, I know some of you would go for the easy assignments.” He winks at the class.
“Maybe he’s not a total d-bag.” Ash thinks to himself. He feels his dislike for the teacher lessening a little.
“Avery, your group is going to be covering the Harpe Brothers: often referred to as the first real serial killers in the United States. Ash, your group will be covering H.H Holmes and his murder hotel. Gemma, you guys will be doing Belle Gunness: one of the first female serial killer. And James, you’ll be looking at the Benders: a family that murdered as a team. Break into your groups and get started.” For the next few minutes, the room is filled with the sound of desks dragging across the floor into their new working groups. Once they settle, Mr. Staal calls for attention.
“Your regular teacher is going to be away for at least a month, maybe longer. So, we’ll set the project for four weeks. I’ll be handing out a breakdown of what is expected when. There will be a couple written assignments and a twenty minute group presentation at the end of the project. You’ll be expected to use audio and visual aids. It will be the responsibility of the group leaders to check in with me once a week with an update on your progress. That means that you can’t just leave all the work to the last day.” He chuckles along with his students. “I’ll meet with each of you at the beginning of next class to get an idea of what your group has come up with. We’ve got about twenty minutes left, so get started. And be creative. I don’t just want a bunch of you standing up there watching one of your people reading off a sheet of paper.” Waving his hand for the class to begin, the teacher takes a seat behind the desk for the first time since entering the classroom.
“How cool is this freaking project?” Sullie slaps Ash’s arm excitedly.
“It is pretty damn cool.” Ash agrees, glancing towards Mr. Staal. Their eyes meet briefly before the teacher looks quickly away. Ash feel his unease from earlier returning.
“Okay, boss, where do we start?” Sullivan pulls her laptop out, her fingers hovering over the keys. Ash smiles at her exuberance. As she types their killer into a search engine, the six of them lean in and listen to her read. Ash’s pushes down his discomfort and focuses on the project.