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Chris Brennan was applying for a teaching job at Central Valley High School, but he was a fraud. His resume was fake, and his identity completely phony. So far he’d fooled the personnel director, the assistant principal, and the chairperson of the Social Studies Department. This morning was his final interview, with the principal, Dr. Wendy McElroy. It was make-or-break.
Chris waited in her office, shifting in his chair, though he wasn’t nervous. He’d already passed the state and federal criminal-background checks and filed a clear Sexual Misconduct/Abuse Disclosure Form, Child Abuse Clearance Form, and Arrest/Conviction Report & Certification Form. He knew what he was doing. He was perfect, on paper.
He’d scoped out the school and observed the male teachers, so he knew what to wear for the interview—a white oxford shirt, no tie, khaki Dockers, and Bass loafers bought from the outlets in town. He was six-foot-two, 216 pounds, and his wide-set blue eyes, broad cheekbones, and friendly smile qualified him as handsome in a suburban way. His hair was sandy brown, and he’d just gotten it cut at the local Supercuts. Everyone liked a clean-cut guy, and they tended to forget that appearances were deceiving.
His gaze took in Dr. McElroy’s office. Sunlight spilled from a panel of windows behind the desk, which was shaped like an L of dark wood, its return stacked with forms, files, and binders labeled Keystone Exams, Lit & Alg 1. Stuffed bookshelves and black file cabinets lined the near wall, and on the far one hung framed diplomas from Penn State and West Chester University, a greaseboard calendar, and a poster that read DREAM MORE, COMPLAIN LESS. The desk held family photographs, pump bottles of Jergen’s and Purell, and unopened correspondence next to a letter opener.
Chris’s gaze lingered on the letter opener, its pointed blade gleaming in the sunlight. Out of nowhere, he flashed to a memory. No! the man had cried, his last word. Chris had stabbed the man in the throat, then yanked out the knife. Instantly a fan of blood had sprayed onto Chris, from residual pressure in the carotid. The knife must have served as a tamponade until he’d pulled it out, breaking the seal. It had been a rookie mistake, but he was young back then.
“Sorry I’m late,” said a voice at the doorway, and Chris rose as Dr. McElroy entered the office on a knee scooter, which held up one of her legs bent at the knee, with a black orthopedic boot on her right foot.
“Hello, Dr. McElroy, I’m Chris Brennan. Need a hand?” Chris rose to help her but she scooted forward, waving him off. She looked like what he’d expected: a middle-aged professional with hooded blue eyes behind wire-rimmed bifocals and with a lean face framed by clipped gray hair and dangling silver earrings. She even had on a dress with a gray-and-pink print. Chris got why women with gray hair dressed in gray things. It looked good.
“Call me Wendy. I know this looks ridiculous. I had bunion surgery, and this is the way I have to get around.”
“Does it hurt?”
“Only my dignity. Please sit down.” Dr. McElroy rolled the scooter toward her desk with difficulty. The basket in front of the scooter held a tote bag stuffed with a laptop, files, and a quilted floral purse.
Chris sat back down, watching her struggle. He sensed she was proving a point, that she didn’t need help, when she clearly did. People were funny. He had researched Dr. McElroy on social media and her faculty webpage, which had a bio and some photos. She’d taught Algebra for twelve years at CVHS and lived in nearby Vandenberg with her husband, David, and their Pembroke Welsh corgi, Bobo. Dr. McElroy’s photo on her teacher webpage was from her younger days, like a permanent Throwback Thursday. Bobo’s photo was current.
“Now you know why I’m late. It takes forever to get anywhere. I was home recuperating during your other interviews, that’s why we’re doing this now. Apologies about the inconvenience.” Dr. McElroy parked the scooter next to her chair, picked up her purse and tote bag from the basket, and set them noisily on her desk.
“That’s okay, it’s not a problem.”
Dr. McElroy left the scooter, hopped to her chair on one foot, then flopped into the seat. “Well done, me!”
“Agree,” Chris said pleasantly.
“Bear with me another moment, please.” Dr. McElroy pulled a smartphone from her purse and put it on her desk, then reached inside her tote bag and slid out a manila folder. She looked up at him with a flustered smile. “So. Chris. Welcome back to Central Valley. I hear you wowed them at your interviews. You have fans here, already.”
“Great, it’s mutual.” Chris flashed a grin. The other teachers liked him, though everything they knew about him was a lie. They didn’t even know his real name, which was Curt Abbott. In a week, when it was all over and he was gone, they’d wonder how he’d duped them. There would be shock and resentment. Some would want closure, others would want blood.
“Chris, let’s not be formal, let’s just talk, since you’ve done so well at your previous interviews, and as you know, we have to get this position filled, ASAP. Mary Merriman is the teacher you’d be replacing, and of course, we all understood her need to take care of her ailing father.” Dr. McElroy sighed. “She’s already up in Maine, but reachable by email or phone. She would be happy to help you in any way she can.”
Whatever, Chris thought but didn’t say. “That’s great to know. How nice of her.”
“Oh, she’s a peach, Mary is. Even at her darkest hour, she’s thinking of her students.” Dr. McElroy brightened. “If I expedite your paperwork, I can get you in class this Thursday, when the sub leaves. Can you start that soon?”
“Yes, the sooner the better,” Chris said, meaning it. He had a lot to do by next Tuesday, which was only a week away, and he couldn’t start until he was in place at the school. It gave new meaning to the word deadline.
“I must warn you, you have big shoes to fill, in Mary. She’s one of our most beloved teachers.”
“I’m sure, but I’m up to the task.” Chris tried to sound gung ho.
“Still it won’t be easy for you, with the spring semester already well under way.”
“Again, I can handle it. I spoke with the others about it and I’m up to speed on her syllabus and lesson plans.”
“Okay, then.” Dr. McElroy opened the manila folder, which contained a printout of Chris’s job application, his fake resume, and his other bogus papers. “Chris, for starters, tell me about yourself. Where are you from?”
“Mostly the Midwest, Indiana, but we moved around a lot. My dad was a sales rep for a plumbing-supply company, and his territory kept changing.” Chris lied, excellently. In truth, he didn’t remember his father or mother. He had grown up in the foster-care system outside of Dayton, Ohio.
Dr. McElroy glanced at the fake resume. “I see you went to Northwest College in Wyoming.”
“Got your certification there, too?”
“Hmmm.” Dr. McElroy paused. “Most of us went to local Pennsylvania schools. West Chester, Widener, Penn State.”
“I understand.” Chris had expected as much, which was why he’d picked Northwest College as his fraudulent alma mater. The odds of running into anyone here who had gone to college in Cody, Wyoming, were slim to none.
Dr. McElroy hesitated. “So, do you think you could fit in here?”
“Yes, of course. I fit in anywhere.” Chris kept the irony from his tone. He’d already established his false identity with his neighbors, the local Dunkin’ Donuts, Friendly’s, and Wegman’s, his persona as smoothly manufactured as the corporate brands with their bright logos, plastic key tags, and rewards programs.
“Where are you living?”
“I’m renting in a new development nearby. Valley Oaks, do you know it?”
“Yes, it’s a nice one,” Dr. McElroy answered, as he’d anticipated. Chris had picked Valley Oaks because it was close to the school, though there weren’t many other decent choices. Central Valley was a small town in south-central Pennsylvania, known primarily for its outlet shopping. The factory store of every American manufacturer filled strip mall after strip mall, and the bargain-priced sprawl was bisected by the main drag, Central Valley Road. Also on Central Valley Road was Central Valley Dry Cleaners, Central Valley Lockshop, and Central Valley High School, evidence that the town had no imagination, which Chris took as a good sign. Because nobody here could ever imagine what he was up to.
Dr. McElroy lifted a graying eyebrow. “What brings you to Central Valley?”
“I wanted a change of scenery. My parents passed away five years ago, in a crash. A drunk driver hit their car head-on.” Chris kept self-pity from his tone. He had taught himself that the key to evoking the sympathy was to not act sorry for yourself.
“Oh no! How horrible.” Dr. McElroy’s expression softened. “My condolences. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you.” Chris paused for dramatic effect.
“How about the rest of your family? Any brothers or sisters?”
“No, I was an only child. The silver lining is that I’m free to go anywhere I want. I came east because there are more teaching jobs and they’re better-paying. Teachers here are rolling in dough, correct?”
Dr. McElroy chuckled, as Chris knew she would. His starting salary would be $55,282. Of course it was unfair that teachers earned less than crooks, but life wasn’t fair. If it were, Chris wouldn’t be here, pretending to be somebody else.
“Why did you become a teacher, Chris?”
“I know it sounds corny but I love kids. You can really see the influence you have on them. My teachers shaped who I am, and I give them so much credit.”
“I feel the same way.” Dr. McElroy smiled briefly, then consulted the fake resume again. “You’ve taught Government before?”
“Yes.” Chris was applying to fill the opening in AP Government, as well as the non-AP course Government & Economics and an elective, Criminal Justice, which was ironic. He had fabricated his experience teaching AP Government, familiarized himself with an AP Government textbook, and copied a syllabus from online, since the AP curriculum was nationally standardized. If they wanted to turn the public schools into chain stores, it worked for him.
“So, you enjoy teaching at the secondary level. Why?”
“The kids are so able, so communicative, and you see their personalities begin to form. Their identities, really, are shaping. They become adults.” Chris heard the ring of truth in his own words, which helped his believability. He actually was interested in identity and the human psyche. Lately he’d been wondering who he was, when he wasn’t impersonating someone.
“And why AP Government? What’s interesting about AP Government to you?”
“Politics is fascinating, especially these days. It’s something that kids see on TV and media, and they want to talk about it. The real issues engage them.” Chris knew that engagement was a teacher buzzword, like grit. He’d picked up terms online, where there were so many teacher blogs, Facebook groups, and Twitter accounts that it seemed like the Internet was what engaged teachers.
“You know, Chris, I grew up in Central Valley. Ten years ago, this county was dairyland, but then the outlets came in and took over. They brought jobs, but we still have a mix of old and new, and you see that in town. There’s been an Agway and a John Deere dealership for decades, but they’re being squeezed out by a Starbucks.”
“I see.” Chris acted sad, but that worked for him too. He was relying on the fact that people here would be friendly, open-hearted, and above all, trusting.
“There’s an unfortunate line between the haves and the have-nots, and it becomes obvious in junior year, which you will be teaching.” Dr. McElroy paused. “The kids from the well-to-do families take the SATs and apply to college. The farm kids stay behind unless they get an athletic scholarship.”
“Good to know,” Chris said, trying to look interested.
“Tell me, how do you communicate with students, best?”
“Oh, one-on-one, definitely. Eye-to-eye, there’s no substitute. I’m a friendly guy. I want to be accessible to them on email, social media, and such, but I believe in personal contact and mutual respect. That’s why I coach, too.”
“Oh, my, I forgot.” Dr. McElroy frowned, then sifted through his file. “You’re applying to fill our vacancy for an assistant baseball coach. Varsity.”
“Yes.” Chris had never coached before, but he was a naturally gifted athlete. He’d been going to indoor batting cages to get back in shape. His right shoulder ached. “I feel strongly that coaching is teaching, and vice versa. In other words, I’m always teaching, whether it’s in the classroom or on the ball field. The setting doesn’t matter, that’s only about location.”
“An insightful way to put it.” Dr. McElroy pursed her lips. “As assistant baseball coach, you would report to Coach Hardwick. I must tell you, he doesn’t keep assistants very long. His last one, well, moved on and wasn’t replaced. Coach Hardwick likes to do it all himself, his own way. And he can be a man of few words.”
“I look forward to meeting him.” Chris had researched Coach Hardwick, evidently a well-known jerk. “I’m sure I can work with Coach Hardwick. He’s an institution in regional high-school baseball, and the Central Valley Musketeers have one of the finest programs in the state.”
“That’s true.” Dr. McElroy nodded, brightening. “Last year, several players were recruited for Division I and II.”
“Yes, I know.” Chris had already scouted the team online for his own purposes. He needed to befriend a quiet, insecure boy, most likely a kid with a troubled relationship to his father. Or better yet, a dead father. It was the same profile that a pedophile would use, but Chris was no pervert. His intent was to manipulate the boy, who was only the means to an end.
“So where do you see yourself in five years?”
“Oh, here, in Central Valley,” Chris lied.
“Why here, though? Why us?” Dr. McElroy tilted her head, and Chris sensed he had to deliver on his answer.
“I love it here, and the rolling hills of Pennsylvania are a real thing. It’s straight-up beautiful. I love the quiet setting and the small-town vibe.” Chris leaned over, as if he were about to open his heart, when he wasn’t even sure he had one. “But the truth is, I’m hoping to settle down here and raise a family. Central Valley just feels like home.”
“Well, that sounds wonderful! I must say, you lived up to all of my expectations.” Dr. McElroy smiled warmly and closed the file. “Congratulations, Chris, you’ve got the job! Let me be the first to welcome you to Central Valley High School.”
“Terrific!” Chris extended his hand over the desk, flashing his most sincere grin.
It was time to set his plan in motion, commencing with step one.
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