Authors: Mike Dellosso
Tags: #FICTION / Christian / Short Stories
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Rearview: A 7 Hours Novella
Copyright Â© 2012 by Michael William Dellosso. All rights reserved.
Cover photograph copyright Â© Maximilian Zimmermann, Germany/Getty Images. All rights reserved.
Designed by Dean H. Renninger
Edited by Kathryn S. Olson
Published in association with the literary agency of Les Stobbe, 300 Doubleday Road, Tryon, NC 28782.
is a work of fiction. Where real people, events, establishments, organizations, or locales appear, they are used fictitiously. All other elements of the novel are drawn from the author's imagination.
ISBN 978-1-4143-7480-2 (Apple); ISBN 978-1-4143-7481-9 (ePub); ISBN 978-1-4143-7482-6 (Mobi)
For Jen and our girlsÂ .Â .Â .
You're reason enough to get up every day.
This is one of my favorite parts of every book because it's a chance to recognize all the folks who have played a part in the making of this story and who never receive any recognition for it.
First, all thanks go to my God and Savior, Jesus. Without him none of this would be possible. I would be living an empty life full of self-fulfilling endeavors and getting nowhere.
Thanks to my wife, Jen, and our four daughters, for giving me such joy and making our home a happy place to be.
Thanks to Kathy Olson and the rest of the team at Tyndale for their work on making this story the best it could be. All accolades go to them; eggs and tomatoes should be aimed at me.
Thanks to my agent, Les Stobbe, for his guidance and leadership.
Thanks to James Wilson for getting a team of authors together with this crazy idea for a project called
. And to my fellow writers on the journey: Rene Gutteridge, Ronie Kendig, Tom Pawlik, Robin Parrish, Travis Thrasher, and James.
Thanks to my readers, who make what I do thrilling and suspenseful every time!
Table of Contents
The alarm sounded the same time it did every morning, pulling Dan Blakely from London's nineteenth century industrial district. The steady beeping gradually grew louder, like an approaching train in the middle of the night, rousing the residents of a small rural town from their sleep, until he reached over and groped for the Off button.
Lying on his back, he shut his eyes and almost drifted back to the squalid orphanages and workhouses that so often populated his dreams, but he had to stay awake, had to get up, shower, dress, grab some breakfast. The day awaited him and he had office hours at eight, then his first class, English lit, at nine. All fifteen students would be waiting anxiously for him to convey some deep meaning about the purpose of life behind the character of Mr. Bumble in Dickens's
A night owl who preferred to do his work by the light of the midnight oil, Dan didn't need a lot of prep time in the morning. He was the definition of low maintenance.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, he rubbed the sleep from his eyes, ran his hands over his stubbled jaw, and stretched his mouth in a lionlike yawn. Narrow rods of muted light peeked through the blinds, dusting the room in a moody morning glow. He stretched, stood, adjusted his boxers, and headed for the master bathroom.
Fifteen minutes later Dan emerged, shaved and showered, with only a towel around his waist. He had no need to comb his hair (he kept it cropped at a half-inch) and no need to iron his clothes. (Sue had ironed them the night before.). Low maintenance, indeed.
In the kitchen he fixed himself a quick breakfast of coffee and a plain bagel. He'd passed on the blueberry one because Sue had dressed him in a white shirt today and Dan wanted to take no chances of getting a blue stain on it.
A yellow sticky note waited for him on the toaster. It read:
I love you, babe. You're the best (husband, dadâyou know!) Love, Sue.
After kissing it, he folded it once and put it in his shirt pocket.
With his coffee in one hand, the bagel in the other, and his attachÃ© slung over his shoulder, he left the house and walked the mile to the Boone College campus. The air was chilly and damp and still, the sky overcast with a thick cover of gunmetal clouds. The meteorologist had said there was a chance of snow and it felt like it, even smelled like it. Tall oaks and maples reached their barren arms heavenward, hands open, fingers splayed, as if begging the sky for sun, for warmth.
On campus, Dan was greeted by bundled students milling around, looking more like prisoners in a Soviet-era Russian labor camp than future teachers and engineers and hamburger flippers, some heading to their first class of the day, some returning from the cafeteria. The semester would soon be over, everyone gone home for Christmas break, and then the place would be a frozen ghost town. He enjoyed it like that. The quiet, the peace of a deserted campusÂ .Â .Â . there was something calming about it after the rush and stress of finals week and Christmas preparations.
On the other side of the campus, he entered Buchanan Hall, a three-story Federal-style brick building dating back to the early 1800s. It had been fully restored and updated several times over the past two hundred years, the most recent job adding security cameras at every entrance and a new key-card door lock system. His office was on the second floor.
Dan loved the smell of his office in the morning. The cleaning crew went through at night, vacuumed, dusted, emptied the waste cans, washed the windows, and tidied up the place. By morning only a hint of the piney odor of cleaning fluid was left and it mingled nicely with the aroma of old wood and furniture polish.
Sitting behind his desk, Dan pulled a stack of papers from his attachÃ© and placed them on the desktop. He'd graded the last of them the night before and some of the students wouldn't be happy with the outcome; in fact they'd be downright disappointed, some even disturbingly upset. And this was the second time around. Their first attempt was so dismal that he'd given them a week to go over their papers again, edit and revise them and, in some cases, wholly rewrite them, then turn them in for another look. Unfortunately, the second go-around was not much better.
He pushed away from the desk and stood, crossed the room, and leaned against the wide molding that framed the window. The six-over-six panes were the original leaded glass and gave a wavy, distorted, almost-undulating view of the outside world. From up here, he could see most of the campus. The grounds were beautiful, dotted with buildings dating back two centuries, trees nearly as old, and large stretches of manicured lawn where students gathered in the spring to sun and study and frolic their stress away. In the center of campus, an area called the commons, stood a thick-trunked, gnarled oak (named Old Oaky by some bygone senior class), its branches twisted and knotty, bark scaly and scarred. No one knew exactly how old it was, but the botanists on faculty all agreed it had seen at least three centuries. The campus was built around it, a circle with the tree in the middle. A wheel and its hub. Old Oaky was the grandfather of Boone College.
Returning to his chair, Dan lifted the phone and checked his messages. He had one from Gary Packard, the chair of the English department.
Gary's voice sounded strained and nervous. “Dan, I need to see you in my office first thing in the morning. It's urgent.” There was a pause so long Dan thought the message had ended and Gary had forgotten to hang up the phone. Then his voice was there again, quiet. “As soon as you get in, okay?”
Dan placed the phone in its cradle, a knot forming in his stomach. He knew what it was about; of course he did. Gary wanted to talk to him about Erin Schriver. Suddenly Dan's palms were slick with sweat. But he'd done nothing wrong. If anything he'd been lenient. He could have brought the hammer down on Erin, had her expelled.
Walking over to the window again, Dan leaned on the sill and watched the methodical movement of students along the walkways below. From up here, the outside world appeared so isolated, so uncomplicated and innocent. But he knew better. It was anything but innocent. He was sure Gary just wanted to get the facts, hear it from Dan's own mouth. Dan had completed all the proper forms and sent Gary both an e-mail and a hard-copy letter explaining what had happened in class, but he'd left some parts out, parts he now wished he'd included. Parts Gary must have somehow found out about.
Below, the student traffic moved in a steady fashion, as if the whole scene had been choreographed for a movie set. Something was out of place, though, and threw the odd dance off rhythm. A man stood in the grass at the corner of Bradley Hall, hands clasped in front of him. Dressed in a dark suit, white shirt, and dark tie, he had the lean athletic build and stoic posture of a Secret Service agent. Dan didn't remember any dignitaries on the schedule to visit the campus. They usually let faculty know about that. The man lifted his eyes and found Dan in the window. Slowly, as if to make a point, he reached into his jacket and pulled out something small, a pocket watch maybe. He glanced at it, then returned his gaze to Dan. For some reason beyond his immediate understanding, the way the man looked, the movement of his arms, the tilt of his head, sent a sliver of ice down Dan's spine, and an involuntary shiver rippled through his muscles.
Dan pushed away from the window. He needed to calm himself before seeing Gary. He couldn't walk in there beaded with cold sweat, nervous, shaky, looking pathetic. He wished now that he had told Sue about the whole thing, but he rarely, if ever, talked about his day with her. He never had. For a moment he thought of calling her and confessing everything before his meeting with Gary, like a child admitting he'd broken the vase before his brother could tattle on him. Except he'd done nothing wrong. He had nothing to confess and there was nothing for anyone to tattle about. In fact, until now his teaching experience had been clear of any kind of controversy. He'd never even flunked a student.
After a brief visit to the bathroom, where he splashed water on his face and dried it with a paper towel, Dan Blakely headed down to the first floor and the office of Gary Packard.
Gary Packard's office was a reflection of the man: orderly, neat, and predictable. It even smelled like Gary's Old Spice cologne. Two walls were lined with floor-to-ceiling mahogany bookcases, neatly trimmed and polished to a perfect satiny sheen. Volumes indexed and arranged alphabetically by subject and author occupied shelf space. One wall consisted of novels, classic to contemporary, Alcott to Zola. The other was neatly packed with nonfiction titles ranging from classroom textbooks and writing craft how-tos to memoirs and biographies.
Against the far wall sat a polished cherry drop-leaf Pembroke table dating back to the late 1700s. Its top was decorated with antique glass inkwells, some over three hundred years old. This was Gary Packard's prized collection and he dusted it every morning upon arriving at his office. Dan had seen him perform the ritual only once and was both amazed and alarmed at the care Gary took to discard every fleck of dust from every glass container. Above the Pembroke table with the assortment of inkwells hung a large, three-by-four-foot original painting by an unknown student of the renowned nineteenth century Hudson River School. Gary liked to surmise that the painting was by none other than the school's founder, Thomas Cole.
On the other side of the office, taking up most of the wall, was Gary's stout, Georgian mahogany partner's desk. The chair of the English department sat behind it, elbows resting on the desktop, fingers laced, wire-rimmed glasses perched so precariously close to the tip of his nose a muffled sneeze might knock them off.
Gary Packard was not an ugly man, but neither would Dan have considered him attractive. Tall and thin, he had an angular face and balding head that reminded one of a bust of some long-dead Roman dignitary. In his midsixties, Gary looked younger than his age but not by much. As far as Dan knew, his immediate superior lived a rather private life and mostly kept to himself. Despite some eccentricities and an odd obsession with inkwells, Gary was likable, and Dan enjoyed wandering into his office between classes to talk about American literature or contemporary fiction or who would win the Eagles-Giants game on Sunday.
Normally a confident, poised man who held his head erect and kept his shoulders back, this morning Gary appeared anything but that. When Dan entered the office, Gary slid his elbows off the desk and dropped his hands into his lap. He motioned to the single leather-upholstered chair across the desk from him. “Dan, please, have a seat.”
A flutter of butterflies took flight in Dan's stomach.
Gary fidgeted, adjusted his tie, pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. He tried to smile but it came off as more of a grimace. “And how are Sue and the boys these days? Fine, I suppose?”
“Yes, they're fine. They went to New York for the day.”
“New York. How nice. Carla and I go every year to see a musical.” Carla was Gary's wife, a dear woman with a gift for hospitality. She made a tremendous hot crab dip. “This year we saw
, a wonderful story. Yes, just wonderful. The man who played Valjean was tremendous. And Victor Hugo, what a genius of a man. Such a wonderful author. Did you ever read the novel?”
“Then you'd very much enjoy the musical. You and Sue should go see it sometime.”
“I'll keep that in mind.”
Gary paused to rub his chin. “I suppose you know why I needed to see you this morning?”
“I'm pretty sure it wasn't to talk about Broadway musicals.”
Gary did not smile, did not even try to force one. “No.”
“Erin Schriver then.”
Again, Gary shifted in his chair, then reached for a blue cut-glass inkwell on his desk and adjusted it a centimeter to the right. Next, he slid a framed picture of him and Carla in Williamsburg, Virginia, the same distance in the same direction. He nodded. “It is.” He sat back in his chair and sighed. Beads of sweat dotted his upper lip. Gary Packard was not a man known to perspire easily. “Dan, what did you do? What have you brought upon yourself?”
Dan leaned forward in the chair. “Look, I have proof she cheated. I sent it all to you. I documented everything so if there was any controversy, I'd be covered.” And he had. He was careful to photocopy the test, Erin's papers, his e-mails, notes, everything. Accusing someone of cheating and giving them a failing grade for the course was a big deal, especially when that someone was Erin Schriver, 4.0 student and daughter of U.S. Senator Rick Schriver.
“Dan, this isn't about the cheating. It's not about documenting or not documenting. And it isn't about covering your posterior.” Gary sat there chewing his lower lip, looking like he knew something Dan didn't. “It isn't about any of that. Not really.”
“So what is it about?” He knew, of course, but had no idea how Gary had found out. He'd told no one, partly because he was embarrassed, partly because he saw no need to. Erin would be humiliated enough by the cheating scandal; the last thing she needed was word to get out about her poor, desperate conduct. And besides, Dan liked her dadâhe was a good politician, a straight shooterâand he didn't want the senator's reputation or chance at reelection marred because of the indiscretion and immaturity of his daughter.
Gary sighed again and rubbed his chin nervously. He pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose and loosened his tie. It was neither hot nor stuffy in the office. “Ms. Schriver has come forward with an accusation.” He cleared his throat, rotated the pen on his desk a quarter turn so it was parallel with the straight line of the desk's edge. Dan noticed the tremor in Gary's hand. “She claims she met with you a couple days ago to discuss the cheating allegations, to deny them.”
“She did. It's all in my documentation.”
“Yes, yes. Yes, I know. That was good. But she claims you left something out. That youÂ .Â .Â . well, that youâ”
“For crying out loud, Gary, that I what? That I refused to hear her excuses? That I didn't want to play her game?”
Gary sat back in his chair hard, as if he'd been punched in the chest by some phantom intruder. “That you assaulted her. Sexually.”
The words fell from Gary Packard's mouth like a guillotine, decapitating any argument Dan might have hoped to use. The office fell as silent as a crypt, the only sound being the ticking of the mantel clock on the Pembroke table. Each tick grew louder and louder until it sounded like a succession of rifle shots. Dan's mouth suddenly went as dry as sand, and he could no longer feel his feet resting on the floor, his hands gripping the arms of the chair. What he did feel was a steady heat, growing, spreading from his neck, down his back, over his shoulders, across his chest. The words reverberated through his head, bouncing around in there like a bullet ricocheting in a metal box.
When he finally found his voice, the only thing he could say was “Rubbish.” He'd been reading too much English fiction.
Gary picked up the pen and turned it over in his hand. He released a shuddered breath. “It's quite serious.”
Hot anger flared in Dan. He couldn't believe Erin would accuse him of such a thing, that she'd be so bold, so conscienceless. The heat intensified and brought out a sweat on his forehead. “Quite serious? What are you talking about? She's lying, Gary. Obviously lying. She's upset about the whole cheating thing.”
Gary arched his eyebrows and sighed. “She has bruises, a detailed account.”
“So it's my word against hers?”
“It's not that easy. She also has a handful of witnesses willing to come forward and say she told them about the whole thing the night it happened. Did you happen to tell anyone? Sue? She might be able to corroborate your version.”
version. So it had come to that. Erin's version and his version. Dan sat back in the chair. The sweat on his forehead had turned cold and now made him shiver. “She's lying. I can't believe this.”
“Did you tell Sue?”
Dan shook his head. “No. I didn't feel a need to. If I'd known my head would be on the chopping block, I would have.”
“Erin reports she approached you about the cheating incident and you offered her an
solution. For certainâ” he cleared his throat and shifted his eyes about his desk as if looking for the correct wordâ“
you would forget the incident. She says when she refused, you became angry and tried to force yourself on her.”
It was a preposterous, incredible story and a total mess of lies. Dan felt as though some unseen hand, maybe that same fist that had punched Gary in the chest just moments ago, had wrapped its bony fingers around his throat and squeezed. He hitched in a breath and said, “So why didn't she call the police?”
“She says she was scared, embarrassed.”
“She wasn't scared!” Dan jumped out of the chair. “She came onto me. I told her I'd caught her cheating and that I had no choice but to give her a failing grade for the class. She practically threw herself at me, told me I did have a choice and she wanted to change my mind. She's lucky I didn't have her expelled.”
Gary held up a hand. “Danâ”
“No, let me finish, Gary. She was relentless until I had to practically throw her out of my office. She was crying, cursing, very upset.” He'd used minimal force, though, nothing that could have caused bruises.
“Was anyone else around?”
“No, it was after five o'clock. I was getting ready to go home for the evening and everyone else on the floor had already gone for the day.” He'd left the door of his office open and she'd invited herself in.
“And why didn't you report any of this?”
“I thought it was just the panicked behavior of a girl caught cheating. C'mon, look who she is, a senator's daughter and all. She knows what it would mean for word to get out that she flunked a class for cheating. I wanted to cut her a break and not blow this whole thing up in her face. That's the last thing she needed. Am I on trial here?”
Gary shook his head. “No. Not here.”
“Is she pressing charges?”
“As far as I know. But the police haven't been notified yet.” He put the pen down, moved it an inch to the right, then to the left, then picked it up again. Clicked it twice. “The thing is, the board, they're taking this very seriously. They have to. And, well, they want to be decisive and take action before any of it goes public. They can't afford the negative publicity. The school can't. Daniel Boone has a long, proud historyâ”
“Cut the PR garbage, Gary. What's going on here? They're not backing me on this?” Dan's heart pounded in his chest like a racehorse knocking against the starting gate, growing more anxious with each passing second. Without the support of the board of trustees, he'd have a difficult, and most likely impossible, uphill climb to shake an allegation like that.
Gary dropped the pen on his desk and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket. He wiped the sweat from his brow and chin. “No, they're not. They, in fact, have decided to let you go. I'm sorry.”
Dan stepped back and knocked the chair to the floor. “What? They're firing me?” The room began to spin around him as if there were an axis running through the middle of it, floor to ceiling, and the whole building revolved around it like an amusement park ride.
The silence was there again save for the gunfire ticking of the clock, each shot directed at Dan's heart. “I can't believe this,” he said. “It's not true. None of it.”
“I'm sorry, Dan,” Gary said. “The board doesn't want to wait around and find out and meanwhile have the school dragged through the mud by the media.”
Dan ran his hand over his head, smoothing his hair. “So they're sacrificing me to save the reputation of the school.”
“It wasn't my decision. I had nothing to do with it. They just wanted me to be the one to tell you.”
“And you just went along with it?”
“They didn't even have the backbone to do it themselves?”
“Don't, Gary. Don't defend them. I can't believe this is happening.”
Gary loosened his tie even more. “They want your office cleared out by the end of the day. Pete Wilkins will be covering your classes today and for the rest of the week.”
“And after that?”
“They haven't found anyone yet.”
Dan walked to the door of the office, placed his hand on the knob, and turned to face Gary. “Do you believe me?”
“What I believe doesn'tâ”
“Do you believe me?”
Gary removed his glasses, set them on the desk, and rubbed his eyes. He then placed the glasses on his nose and ran the wire frame around his ears. “She has bruises, Dan, and friends willing to testify. What does it look like to you?”
“Anyone could have given her those bruises.”
“Who?” Gary's voice rose in volume. “And why would her friends be willing to lie for her? To risk so much for a lie? Tell me that.”
Dan opened the door and stumbled into the hallway like a drunk doing what he did best. He felt as though he were moving in slow motion, like he was playing the part of a character in some Alfred Hitchcock movie and the reel had been slowed to half speed while he groped for balance, worked to steady himself. Even the dramatic music played in his head. He caught himself on the far wall and drew in a deep breath.
Alicia Copper, the English department's secretary, came out of the central office. “Are you okay, Dan?”
Dan waved her off. “I'm fine.” He ran a hand over his face and headed for the main exit. Alicia had always been kind to him. She'd think differently in a few days. They all would.
Pushing through the door, he stood on the building's stoop and reached for the twisted iron railing. The sky hung dark and foreboding. The low-slung clouds did not move but threatened snow. The air was heavy and moist. A chill swept through him, penetrated clothes and skin and rattled his bones.