*This was one of my first short stories to be published online. The Harrow, I believe. Hope you enjoy the ride.
Surviving as a Substitute
Patty Sloan. Sandra Simpson. Mary Dillard. Jackie Boulder.
I heard those four names on the news this morning and before I looked up at the TV I’d already pictured their faces in my mind – all four with staged smiles in what would be their last yearbook photos. They all died during the last week of school, May 2001, toward the end of one of the hottest springs on record in the Texas Panhandle (daytime temperatures averaged ninety-nine, nighttime’s seventy-five), and those photos had been shown on the news at least a hundred times since then.
I was a substitute for Mr. Hayden’s freshmen geography class at Amarillo High that week. I arrived at school ten minutes late on Monday, disheveled, unprepared, and tired. It had been a long, hot night. My wife Beth, seven months pregnant with twins, felt light-headed and nauseated because of the heat, almost throwing up twice, and the two fans at the foot of the bed didn’t seem to be helping. Our air conditioner had broken two days earlier and we didn’t have the money to fix it.
Beth had worked five long years at JC Penney’s to become a department manager but had been forced to quit due to health concerns during the pregnancy. The loss of her income crippled us. Our bank account was bordering on phantom, our credit cards were maxed out, and along with the broken air conditioner, the roof leaked, the dishwasher didn’t work, neither did the dryer, and the steering wheel on the Taurus kept jerking right. We’d sold our other car to pay for some of Beth’s upfront medical bills, and we were going to have a garage sale on Saturday so that hopefully we’d have enough money to get through the summer.
During third period that Monday, I was writing out a list of items to clean and tag for the sale when I heard that Patty Sloan, a freshmen English teacher, hadn’t shown up at school or called in for a sub. I didn’t pay much attention to it then, but an hour later when I heard that someone had found her dead body on her front porch, I started paying attention. We all did.
According to the reports, her neighbor Doris heard what she thought was a gunshot a little before 8AM and went outside to check it out. Next door she found Patty’s dead body on the front porch. Her body lay in an awkward position; her legs twisted beneath her, her arms spread out in a swan dive, blanketed with folders and papers. Her eyes were open, sparkling in the sun, seeming to stare at something fantastic in the morning sky. Blood ran in thick, slow streams down the steps. A bullet hole in her forehead was the source. Doris screamed twice before running inside and calling 911.
Patty had led a solitary life. Born and raised in Amarillo, she never married and didn’t have any kids. At forty-six, she had taught at Amarillo High for twenty-three years and much like her classroom, her life had been based on rules and predictability. But from when the news of her death hit the school around noon until the final bell at 3:30, rumors disputing this spread like wild fire among the students and faculty.
That afternoon, everyone knew the real Patty Sloan.
Her favorite color was blue…and red…and maybe yellow. She’d kissed ten boys behind bookshelves in the library and slapped five others for trying. She was a church elder but needed a flask of whiskey in her purse to get through the Sunday sermon. She’d given up two illegitimate kids for adoption in her early twenty’s despite being barren. She was pretty but manly. She lusted after men and women. She was a bitch and a saint. Cool and a drag. Sweet and sour.
By the time the cops arrived on campus, predictable Patty Sloan had morphed into a well-rounded mythical powerhouse. They spoke to me about her in Mr. Hayden’s room after school let out.
“We’d like to ask you a few questions, Mr. Miller,” an officer introducing himself as Dick said as I stooped over gathering my things at Mr. Hayden’s desk.
“Sure,” I said, picking up my bag and facing him, trying to show my intent to leave soon. He stood stolid, arms crossed, eyes glued to mine.
“Did you know Patty Sloan?”
“Depends on what you mean by know,” I said. “I’ve spoken to her a few times over the years, but I don’t know her favorite band or anything like that.”
“Well, have you heard what happened today?”
“Yes. What a tragedy,” I whispered.
Dick didn’t budge. Didn’t even blink. His voice turned stern. “We heard that you called her bitch and told a few people that she’d get what she deserved. Is that accurate?”
I gave him a wide-eyed blink, stunned at his directness. I’d forgotten all about that argument, but the memory came fast.
“Yeah. I subbed for her once, I think it was two years ago. She said that I messed up her lesson plans and confused her kids. Then she called me an incompetent slacker who couldn’t teach a fish how to swim, or a bird how to fly, or something like that. Then, yes, I called her a bitch and stormed off. It was a quick argument between two frustrated people with a lot of venting afterwards.”
Dick still didn’t blink. I couldn’t even tell if he was breathing. “What about saying that she’d get what she deserved?”
“I meant that in the instant karma, you know, John Lennon sense…not that I’d…you don’t think that I…we’ve spoken cordially since…I would never–”
Dick raised his right hand as if going to be sworn in to some secret club. “No one is accusing you of anything, Mr. Miller. We just need to check every avenue. Thanks for your time.”
I didn’t know if his curt exit played into some intimidation tactic or if he was simply in a hurry. I’d heard they wanted to question every teacher that afternoon so I assumed the latter.
I got home around 4:00 and Beth was up and pacing, clammy and nervous – the exact opposite of what the doctor had recommended. She was supposed to stay in bed. She threw her chest into mine and squeezed her arms around me before I could set my bag down.
“You shouldn’t be up,” I said. “Your blood pressure, remember?”
“I love you,” she said, not hearing me, not loosening her grip. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
I sighed. The pregnancy hormones. “Me too, but you need to get off your feet.”
“I heard about Patty,” she said, pulling back and looking me in the eyes. “They think the shot came from the park across the street from her house. It’s horrible. I can’t believe it.”
“I couldn’t either,” I said, leading her by hand to the bedroom.
“With all the guns out there and the uninterested parents, it’s probably some stupid kid like at Columbine. Don’t you think?”
“Probably,” I said as Beth plopped onto the bed, her belly bubbled out. I propped her feet up with a pillow and kissed her forehead. She squeezed my hand and sighed. “I’m going to go cook some dinner. Turn on the tube and relax. I think Dawson’s Creek is starting. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
I made spaghetti and salad, took it up to her, and told her that we’d talk about the shooting later although I had no intention of doing so. I was tired and stressed out and disturbed by what had happened and wanted to be alone. I went downstairs to wash the dishes and put on a pot of coffee. I sat in the kitchen and thought about my dad while I waited for Beth to fall asleep.
He’d worked as a mechanic for a long-haul trucking company from when he was seventeen until he died at sixty-seven, which was last summer. As a teenager, my fondest times with him were spent in our garage working on his old ’67 Chevy. He would call me out there to help him when he thought I looked troubled or upset or anxious, but unlike my mom, he’d never ask me what was wrong or try to tell me how to handle it if he knew. He would just give me something to tighten or screw or hammer, and then he’d start talking while he piddled around under the hood. He’d tell me stories about his childhood that usually touched base with my current problem. How accurate his stories were, I don’t know. And I don’t care. He spoke in soft, drawn out words laced together into soothing sentences that went on and on and on. My worries always seemed to vanish while I was out there working with him, at least for a while.
After Beth fell asleep, I crept into the hallway and started tinkering around with the broken air conditioner, pretending it was the Chevy, pretending the hallway was the garage, and slowly repeated my dad’s stories out loud trying to sound like him, trying to soothe myself, but my voice sounded weak and reedy, not comforting and confident like his, and our spring flower-scented Glade Air Freshener couldn’t compete with the smell of stale gas and oil that used to saturate the garage. Disappointed, I went to the computer room and did some research on the computer instead. I had some people to email anyway.
I slept in fitful spurts, three to four hours tops, and then left for work Tuesday morning before Beth woke up. I left a note on the kitchen table that said I’d call her at lunch and bring home Chinese for dinner.
In the faculty room before school started, I learned that three students who called themselves The Triangle were being focused on as suspects. One of them had threatened to shoot a math teacher a month earlier. All three were absent Monday and claimed to have been looking for arrowheads at Alabate’s Flint Reserve all day, together, stoned, but the police didn’t buy it. They found a loaded rifle of the same caliber as the one used on Patty Sloan in one of their garages and ballistics tests were underway. The police were leaning heavily on them, wanting to get a clean confession to put the town at ease.
The superintendent gave a speech for the media on the front steps after first bell. I opened a window and listened as he spouted the usual: “Our condolences go out to the family. Becky was part of our family as well, and we are all grieving with them.” And at the end, as if he had anything to do with the investigation, he promised justice.
The rest of the school day flew by in a blur. The faculty tried to keep the day structured but it was no use. Most students were wide-eyed and excited and talkative, like they were lined up on the edge of a couch watching a horror movie, eagerly anticipating what would happen next.
Around 4:30 that afternoon, Josh Simpson, a sophomore, returned home after baseball off-season workouts and found his mom Sandra Simpson, a freshmen English teacher, dead, face down on a tomato plant in their backyard garden. A nylon bungee cord was still stuck in the fat rolls of her neck. She didn’t have a chance to fight back the police later claimed. They said she was attacked from behind and would have had only thirty-seconds to a minute before she blacked out.
And although the three boys in The Triangle admitted that they hated her, they couldn’t have done it. They had been separated and under strict supervision all day. And the ballistics test solidified their innocence later that evening when it came back negative.
I got home with the Chinese food around the same time that Josh Simpson was being escorted to the police station. Beth sat on the edge of the couch, watching the 5:00 news, crying again. The banner at the bottom of the screen read: Breaking News, Teacher Murdered. I dropped the bag of food on the floor, trembling. Sandra’s school picture was in the top left corner of the screen (the same one seared into my memory).
Beth stood and grabbed my hand. “Did you know her?”
“We sat next to one another in the lobby at the school district main office when…” I trailed off.
“It’s all right, honey, you’re shaking,” Beth said, squeezing my hand. “When you were there for your interview or something?”
“Right,” I muttered. “She got the job instead of me. I should…I should…”
“They said that this was only her second year teaching at Amarillo High.” Beth took in a deep breath. “Do you think they have any leads?”
I didn’t answer. I didn’t know. We watched the news while we ate our cold Chinese in silence. With The Triangle exonerated, the police were now questioning two ex-students – a mortician’s son and his goth buddy who’d been busted planning to kidnap a teacher and bury her alive two years back. They shared an apartment down the street from the Simpson’s house.
Beth went to the bedroom after dinner, and once she was situated and comfy, I told her I needed to grade some papers and went to the computer room.
I sat and stared out at the dark, starless sky, wondering about the Simpson family. Wondering who would care for Josh now. He didn’t know his dad and I wasn’t sure about his grandparents. I also wondered about how it would affect him later, finding his mom’s corpse like that. I’m sure his fate dominated a lot of troubled minds that night.
I woke up Wednesday morning in the computer room chair. I checked on Beth before I left for work. Personally, I couldn’t believe they hadn’t called school off. The superintendent had made a statement on the news telling parents to feel free to keep their kids home if they saw fit, but that the state demanded schools stay in session a minimum of 180 days each year. We were at 179 and no one wanted to take time off and then have to come back the next week. Make it easy and get it over with was the prevailing philosophy on the school board. Everyone who chose not to come would not be penalized and would be given a chance to make-up their finals later.
I was switched from subbing for Mr. Hayden’s geography class to an English one. Someone who’d read Elie Wiesel’s Night needed to administer the late Mrs. Sloan’s final to those who wanted to take it. I liked the change – my degree was in English – but felt apprehensive about it nonetheless. The English rooms were obviously a target of the growing madness and were becoming a focal point of the nation.
Sometime in the night the national media had gotten wind of the second murder. They had flown like a flock of starving vultures, smelling fresh blood and death for the taking, and landed across the street from our school in an abandoned lot. Truckloads of them.
In the halls, all the teachers seemed on edge…quiet, closed, their arms tight to their chests, their steps short and measured. Their eyes flickered back and forth faster than strobe lights. Exchanges in the halls with students were clipped and cautious. For all they knew, the killer could be and probably was walking down those same halls or even sitting in one of their classes.
I stayed secluded in my room all day to avoid the paranoia. It was contagious and I needed to stay as calm as possible for Beth’s sake. I answered a few standard questions for the cops, but not much more. I dealt with as few students and talked to as few teachers as possible.
Beth didn’t feel well that evening and went to bed early. I drank coffee in the computer room until 1AM, working on the computer and grading finals, and then sat in the dark for awhile, worrying about Beth and the twins, worrying what would happen to them if something were to happen to me.
The next morning, Mary Dillard died.
She left for work around 7:45. The same time as usual. She lived two blocks away from Beth and me and passed our house on the way to school every morning. When Beth or I were outside, we’d wave and smile and she’d wave back. I’d met Mary the same way I’d met Sandra – in a lobby at the district office waiting for a job interview.
After she passed my house – I can’t remember if I waved to her on that morning or not – Mary turned west onto Hollywood Road. Half a mile from the school turnoff, she rounded a bend at 55 miles per hour unaware she had few seconds of life left. The police said she probably slammed down on the brake with no response, then, in a moment of blind panic, she lost control of her Explorer and veered off the road, rolling end over end four times, and was ejected from the driver’s side window. She died instantly of a snapped neck and spine. The doctors said it happened so fast that she didn’t feel any pain.
By mid-morning the school was buzzing with the news. The national media people looked gleeful outside their trailers across the street, ecstatic to have more fuel tossed on the fire. They ran around as fast and as frantic as a swarm of agitated bees, setting up cameras and patting on make-up. They all wanted to be the first station to inform the public of the latest Breaking News.
Kara Bickler, a snotty, rather annoying freshmen who seemed to be one of the few kids not yet affected by the deaths, told me all about it when I exited the bathroom after third period.
“Did you hear?” she asked.
“I’m sure you’ll tell me,” I mumbled but she never heard. She’d already begun dropping the news out of her large mouth like a blob of vomit.
Her mom had called and told her that her dad who was on the police force said that Mary Dillard’s brake fluid had been leaking. A puddle was found on her driveway and someone checked and they had definitely been tampered with.
Just before eleven, the principal came on over the intercom and announced that school would let out at lunch for the summer. We’d gotten a pardon from the state after they’d heard about the latest tragedy.
For the last hour of school, I watched over two of the four freshmen English classes. Mrs. Jackie Boulder, the last person alive who had started the week as a freshmen English teacher, watched the other two.
She died a couple of hours later at home.
Every Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday in the spring and summer Jackie set two glass containers on her back porch to make sun tea. Anyone could’ve researched poisons on the internet. Anyone could’ve put the cyanide in them. Anyone who knew her or lived close to her would know that all she drank was tea. And that she drank it in huge amounts, in huge gulps, all the time, especially that sweltering spring. The police tested the tea in the fridge and it had a high concentrate of cyanide. She’d probably come home at lunch, refilled her cup with the tea she’d brought in off the porch that morning and started swigging it. She was found that night with one hand on her chest and the other on her neck, her skin cherry-red, her tongue hanging out, lying on the kitchen floor in a pool of spilled tea.
I hadn’t known Jackie. We’d said hello to each other in the halls, but I’d never subbed for her and I told the cops the same when questioned. She had been Patty Sloan’s best friend for twenty years, and I think Patty’s death did a number on her. I’d heard that she made a few weak attempts at suicide two years earlier after catching her husband in bed with another woman, and that Patty had been the one to help her through it.
Sometimes I like to believe that maybe she wanted to die that week. Maybe she didn’t want to be the only one left to absorb all the pain on the freshmen hall. Maybe she’d been okay being the last one picked rather than not being picked at all. I guess believing this was my way of dealing with everything. (No one could be expected to deal with all that death without one irrational crutch.)
On Friday, ten teachers turned in their resignations. They felt their lives were in danger. A few others were on the verge of nervous breakdowns from anxiety or depression. I know it looked selfish and inconsiderate, but I printed out the references I’d emailed colleagues for a few days earlier, updated my résumé, and dropped it off at the district office. I got one of the jobs without an interview. After all the national exposure, not many people applied and I didn’t blame them. But I needed the job, and though a bit hesitant, Beth agreed. We had bills piling up everyday, a leaky roof, a broken air conditioner, a crumbling car, and most importantly, twins on the way, a family to care for. If I was next to die, at least I’d die trying.
With four dead teachers killed in four different ways and three of them at a distance, the police had little to go on. No fingerprints were found. No eyewitnesses came forward. No linking motive surfaced. No DNA tested matched anyone. Usually serial killers stick with the same routine, the same motive of killing, but this was different and caused the inexperienced Amarillo Police a lot of confusion. The investigation stalled after a few months, stopped making the news and drifted away.
All that was six years ago.
Then, on the news report this morning when they mentioned the four names, they also said that a sophomore teacher, Janice Wilkins, had been found stabbed in Pampa – a town about fifty miles northeast of Amarillo.
The news report frightened Beth. She teared up when it ended. Our twin girls, Jane and Kate, are six. Jane is deaf, and Pampa has one of the best small deaf schools in the panhandle. She would get a lot of one-on-one attention there, and Beth was determined to get her in for the fall semester.
“It’ll be all right,” I said, taking Beth’s hand in mine. “Teachers die all the time just like everyone else. It’s a freak coincidence is all.”
I didn’t tell Beth that I’d been in Pampa the day of the murder scoping out the two high schools and meeting the teachers – Janice Wilkins included. Or that I was going back this Friday to turn in my updated résumé and to interview for the open job. The deaf school cost a lot, almost as much as a state college. We’ve got more bills to pay now than ever before, and Beth plans on going back to college in the fall. I need a good, steady job.
Someday I think Beth will connect the dots. She’s a smart gal.
When she does, I’ll tell her what I told myself during that dark week six years ago, and what I’ve started telling myself again.
That we’re good, hard working people and deserve a break just as much as Patty or Sandra or Mary or Jackie or Janice did.
That sometimes in this world you have to push for what you want.
That sometimes sacrifices have to be made.
That it was done for her. For the twins. For our family.
That I didn’t do it, not the man she knows and loves.
A substitute did.
I hope she understands.