A week later. Last day of class.
Last days are always bittersweet. There’s a sadness in the act of saying goodbye to the students—many of whom I get to know a little over the previous three months, and like a little—the sadness always balanced against the brain-numbing exhaustion of a long semester and the anticipated delight of a coming rest. This year, the year everything went crazy, the exhaustion was deeper because of all I’d been through, and because the sheer number of students I’d had to deal with—there were too many of them, and I never got to know them as well as I should have, and I probably didn’t teach them very well.
It was the last day of a bad year for education.
So. I was in my office between classes, brooding about goodbyes, and brooding too about Shawn’s graduate reading, scheduled for that evening, when I heard familiar heavy footsteps in the hallway and I looked up—and Sally appeared in my doorway. Always now a cheerful sight. She smiled at me and looked over her shoulder.
“Yeah!” Sally said. “He’s still here!”
Then Earl was standing behind her. “Tom,” he said. “It seems that Courtney hasn’t shown up for her morning classes, and she’s not answering her phone. We’re going over to see if she’s okay. Would you like to come?”
And maybe I was sort of expecting this, somehow? Expecting something to interrupt the last day of a badly interrupted year.
“Sure,” I said. I grabbed my phone and a hat and the thee of us went around the corner and got onto the elevator.
“I had a private meeting with Courtney on Monday,” Earl said to me. “It was very—unpleasant. It seems like a lot of her sense of self is wrapped up in this job.”
“Then she shouldn’t have screwed it up,” Sally said.
“Oh, yes!” Earl said. The elevator door opened and we got out and left the building. “But she doesn’t seem to see it that way—she doesn’t think she did anything wrong.”
Like killing Devon. For fuck’s sake.
I said, “That’s our girl.”
“Yes,” Earl said. “She thinks everyone in the department has been unkind to her—especially you, Tom.”
“Good,” I said. “I can live with that.”
We went over to Earl’s car—an older maroon Buick—and Sally got in back and I got up front with Earl. He took his time heading to Courtney’s house—heading south and around the big cemetery and the fetus monument.
“This has been a very difficult year,” Earl said.
Yeah, I thought. No kidding.
“But I actually also think that we’re down now to core quality faculty—and staff.” Earl looked in the mirror at Sally. “And now we can prepare to smoothly expand, you know, and try to get back to doing our jobs.”
More hiring committees, I thought. Fuck me.
We turned north on Front Street and headed up the west side of the campus. Past fraternity row. Heading downtown, and the downtown was as grim and gray on a warm, cloudy day as it was in winter or at night.
“I got into higher education because I loved it, you know,” Earl said. “American literature—”
“Melville,” I said. Earl was a Faulkner guy.
“Yes—Melville, and others. Faulkner. Yes, and I wanted to share that love with other people, and I somehow ended up—here. I know thought then I’d move on, but I didn’t. I guess I settled. I guess, you know, my life turned out rather differently than I once thought it might. But maybe I can still do some important work in the time I have left.”
I looked over at Earl. He took a deep breath or two. I think he was about to cry.
“We’re lucky to have you,” I said. I think I sort of believed that. Even if I didn’t, it was an appropriate thing to say.
“Hey!” Sally said suddenly. “Has anyone looked at Courtney’s Facebook today?”
I pulled out my phone.
Courtney’s Facebook. Jesus. Even though I despised her, I never got around to unfriending her—unfriending seemed a step too far, too uncollegial even for me—and I merely blocked her, so that I wouldn’t have to look at her stupid shit on my timeline.
“’I have been manipulated and persecuted for far too long,” Sally read. “The too is in all-caps.”
Early slowly shook his head and hit the turn signal to make a left onto Ottawa street.
“‘I have been trashed with vile slander,’” Sally read.
Vile slander again. For fuck’s sake.
“And I have suffered false charges and attacks….”
I got to Courtney’s page.
especially by “Doctor” Thomas Holt, whose vendetta against me is infantile, idiotic, and stupid. On the contrary, I am an artist and an high achiever and I have achieved great things at SoutheaST Kansas State University. But, whilst I am a Woman of Steel will and determination, I am also a Woman of Compassion and overwhelming kindness. I have decided to fight back against my Enemies the best way I can, with logic and with language and WITH LOVE.
I said aloud, “Oh, for fuck’s sake.”
I will love my Enemies.
I will love even “Doctor” Thomas Holt, the slanderer.
“Hey!” I said. “Did she just violate the Social Media Policy?”
Sally said, “And there’s a poem!”
Think about those times You
helped someone by helping
Yourself. Think about times
people near You by the
Brilliance of Your own Self.
Think of Your Willpower,
how it sanctified the
people around You, how
You made existence much
Sweeter for so many.
Never forget how You
were too cruelly stabbed
in the back—but always
remember that pain with
“I like how she stretched love into six syllables,” Sally said. “That’s poetry.”
I could see the roof of Courtney’s house ahead of us. Earl came to the house from the east and parked across the street from Courtney’s steps. A FOR SALE sign dangled from a metal frame. That was something new.
Who was she going to find to buy this dump?
“Well, I’m surprised,” Earl said. “I would have expected her to be a bit more—prolix—in her message. She sure had a lot to say on Monday—and she sure had no love for you, Tom.”
“There’s probably more to come,” Sally said. “I’ll try calling her again.”
We got out of the car and stood looking across the street at the house. The big dogs were barking in Courtney’s backyard but the street was quiet. I could hear Sally’s phone—her call to Courtney went to voicemail. Sally disconnected.
“Courtney!” Earl called in his creaky old man’s voice. It barely carried across the street. “Come out!”
“Those dogs out back are going nuts,” Sally said.
But—there was something wrong. Weren’t there supposed to be two dogs assigned to the front porch? None there now. I started to cross the street.
“Better be careful,” Earl said.
I guess that was good advice.
Closer. I didn’t go up the steps. Stood there. The front door of the house was half-open. A friendly hand-lettered piece of notebook paper was taped to the door, fluttering in the Kansas wind.
Come on in!
Earl and Sally came up to the bottom of the steps. Out back the dogs were barking, howling. Something was wrong.
“Maybe she’s inside asleep,” Earl said.
“She might have us on TV,” I said. I pointed up at a camera bubble. “She has video cameras out here.”
I nudged the door the rest of the way open with my foot. I went on inside, the front room overheated and cluttered with knickknacks. Messy. Sally came up right behind me.
“Courtney!” Sally yelled. “Hey!”
I smelled—gas. I went around to the kitchen and the oven door was open—no poet head inside—and the burners were all turned up and nothing was lit. I shut them off as fast as I could. In the backyard, the five giant dogs had stopped barking. Through the window I saw them staring up at the house—and then, right there on the deck, I saw Shawn’s mangled body. Bloody and all torn up, and next to it a torn-up bag of dog food. The big brindled dog came up on the deck—the gate, open—and sniffed around at the food, pausing to lick at Shawn’s blood. Then he looked hopefully at the kitchen.
“Jesus!” Sally said. She was standing next to me—I didn’t even hear her come into the kitchen.
“He told me he’d come over and feed the dogs sometimes,” I said.
“Jesus,” Sally said again. “Listen—there’s gas heaters on all the upper floors. We need to check those.”
We went around to the front of the house. Earl was inside, standing at the foot of the stairs, looking confused and old and shaken. But he followed us up the stairs.
On the next floor it smelled like the gas heaters were all turned on. I went looking for the heaters. Sally and Earl went on up the stairs to find Courtney. In the Poetry Room the big photo of Sylvia Plath looked out at me, happy and smiling. Courtney had built an—altar?—in front of it, with candles, lit fucking candles—and odd offerings in dishes—rocks, colored pens, nails, walnuts, various small knickknacks. I bent to blow the fucking candles out and noticed one of the offering dishes. There was an iPhone in it. With a blue metal case. It looked like—Devon’s phone. I slipped the phone into my back pocket and went around to the Authority Room, with the big pictures of Ayn Rand and Josef Stalin and the gas was on in there, too, though no candles. I bent to turn off the gas--
Then I heard Sally. “Out! Out! Out!”
I ran back out to the stairs. Earl was going down slowly—too slowly—Sally with a hand on his shoulder to steady him.
“She’s got gasoline poured around up there!” Sally said.
“Did you see her?”
“Yeah,” Sally said. “She was on a daybed and she saw me and she yelled something.”
“I think she said for us to wait,” Earl said. He paused and half turned around. “I heard her. Maybe we should wait.”
“Earl, there’s fucking gasoline up there—we need to get out of the house!”
Earl was braced himself between the wall and the banister and turned and went down the stairs slowly, stepping carefully with his old man’s eyesight and balance
“C’mon, Earl,” Sally said. “Let’s go.”
I thought I could smell smoke. Probably just the stupid candles. I hoped. I fell in behind Sally and we clomped slowly down the stairs and out and across the street. Sally was already on the phone to 911.
I asked Earl, “Did you see her?”
“I don’t know,” Earl said. He was breathing heavily—wheezing. “I got all the way to the top—and then Sally started pushing me back down.”
I looked back at the house. I said, “It was a trap.”
Earl asked, “What?”
There was a soft thump then and I saw flames in the windows of the fourth-floor garrets. Then a bigger soft thoomp and a flash and flames on the third and second floors. In a moment, windows began busting out. Bats fluttered from the attic vents. Sirens off in the distance. The dogs in the back yard began to howl again. Nothing else to do now. I put my arm around Sally and the three of us leaned back against Earl’s car and watched the big house burn.