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Authors: Liz Jasper

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BOOK: Underdead
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Little monsters.

By the time I got through my first-period class I felt like a delicate prairie wildflower after a stampede had gone through, but it was just the beginning of that morning’s hell.

Earlier that morning, before school, I had gone to speak to the headmaster about my sun allergy. After listening to my tale of woe, he had patted me on the shoulder and told me he had every confidence some arrangement could be worked out, that there was no reason why we couldn’t find places for me to teach that didn’t subject me to direct light.

My grateful smile faded when he went on to tell me I would need to work out any changes to my schedule or classroom with my department head. Rotten Roger was the last person I wanted to discuss my sun allergy with. He was the last person I would want to discuss
anything
with.

But it had to be done or I would be That Weird Teacher With The Mask for the rest of my career. Roger and I both had the second period free. I pulled back out the note Dr. Nagata had given me, took a deep breath, and forced myself down the stairs to Roger’s classroom.

Fifteen minutes later I returned to my classroom and collapsed in the chair behind my desk. I stared at the black-topped lab benches, unaccustomedly aligned from a holiday cleaning in two straight lines, a la Miss Clavel in those
Madeline
books I loved as a child. Roger’s unsympathetic words repeated over and over in my head. “If we changed your schedule—even if it could be done, which I doubt—not only would it create problems for many students and several other faculty members, but it would be unfair to them as well. Why should so many people have to suffer to accommodate your dermatological problems? If it troubles you so much, perhaps you should take a leave of absence until it clears up.”

A bell rang to signal the morning break, and seconds later Carol appeared at my door carefully balancing three cups of coffee. Though her usual smile was very much in evidence, the mild brown eyes behind the gold-rimmed glasses were dark with concern. Becky appeared moments later, a little out of breath from running all the way up from the chem lab. I did a double take. Her bleached silver and crimson hair was back to its native black.

Carol handed the coffee around. “We thought we’d save you a trip down to the terrace, limit your sun exposure.” Her cheerfulness seemed a little forced. I didn’t bother to ask how they’d found out about my sun allergy. I would have been surprised if they didn’t know.

Becky shut the door behind her and cut right to the chase as usual. “This way you can avoid all the curious stares and questions.” She grinned and added, “It’ll give everyone more time to make stuff up about you. By the end of the day, you should have your pick of diseases
with
accompanying stories of how you got them.”

Their good cop/bad cop, or rather sympathy/screw ‘em, routine had its usual cheering effect. I took a grateful sip of coffee. Well, not too grateful. “God this stuff is worse than I remembered,” I said with a grimace.

“Had to get it from the lounge,” Carol explained, apologetically. The cafeteria put out an industrial-sized urn of coffee on the terrace for the teachers at morning break and at lunch. Anyone who wanted caffeine at odd times was stuck with whatever was left in the coffee maker in the faculty lounge. It was barely tolerable if you caught it fresh brewed but more often than not, you were stuck with a noxious bitter syrup that had been condensing on the burner for hours.

Becky hitched a leg on a lab bench after automatically checking first to make sure it was clean. “So what’s with this disease you’ve contracted?”

“Sun sensitivity,” I said dismissively. “What’s with your hair?”

She shrugged. “Grandparents. They’re pretty old school.”

“She does this every year. Goes conservative for a few weeks,” Carol said.

“Re-ally,” I said, intrigued by this unexpected display of conformity. I tried to imagine Becky in a twin set and failed.

“It’s just hair,” Becky said impatiently. “Stop trying to change the subject.”

I gave in and explained Dr. Nagata’s diagnosis and that he had prescribed no sun exposure. “And I mean zero. I’m taking a great risk here, only wearing SPF five thousand, inside, with the curtains drawn, on the shaded side of the building. “I held up the mask disgustedly with one finger, as if it smelled, and admitted I would have to wear it that afternoon when the sun hit my west-facing classroom.

Becky was horrified and gave Carol a meaningful look that said “Do something!”

Carol did. “I have the computer room reserved this week, but I don’t really need it today. Why don’t you teach your afternoon classes in there until we figure out a longer term solution—if you’re not doing a lab or anything that needs space?”

It was a windowless room down the hall with a whiteboard and room for twenty. “No, that’s perfect, thank you.” My eyes got suspiciously bright and I reached for a tissue to dab them. I swear, I’d been a weepy mess since I’d contracted that stinking skin allergy.

Carol pretended she didn’t notice and turned the conversation away from me. “Have you been following the articles about the missing woman?”

“I don’t think so. What articles?” I said.

“Ooh, I did,” Becky said, shivering theatrically. “I read about it on the plane. Creepy!”

Carol said, “A woman reported missing around the holidays was last seen at that restaurant we went to for our department dinner—”

“The same night we were there!” Becky said.

Carol nodded. “She was last seen talking to some man with dark hair.”

I felt sick. My hand moved automatically to my neck, fingering the bandage hidden under my turtleneck. The wound wasn’t healing well. I really should have showed it to Dr. Nagata when I’d had the chance, but I had been too embarrassed to discuss how I’d gotten it in front of my mother. I chided myself for being paranoid. It wasn’t even infected, just healing slowly, doubtlessly because of my skin problem.

“Did they give a description?” I asked.

“I think they said she was tall, with brown hair,” Carol said, misunderstanding who I meant.

“Don’t worry,” Becky said dryly, watching me. “It wasn’t Hot Man. The description didn’t match and no one could have forgotten what
he
looked like. Speaking of Hot Man…what happened that night?”

Before I could form an answer, the bell rang signaling the end of the break. “Saved by the bell,” Becky said, giving me a knowing look. She opened the door to the roaring wave of students clambering upstairs for third period science. “Don’t worry. We’ll catch up on that subject later. I want
all
the details,” she said, and followed Carol out.

At lunchtime I ate one of my emergency energy bars at my desk, flushing out the meal with tap water from the sink in the back of my room, and some crackers left over from a lab. I knew I was being cowardly, but I’d suffered through gawking and questions from three classes worth of students already, and didn’t feel the need to prove anything by submitting myself to more gawking and questions from my colleagues.

When I was sure the hall was empty, I took out my grade book and ducked across to the computer room with the virtuous intention of updating my grading program. After a few tedious minutes of entering grades, however, I gave in to my curiosity and went online to read about the missing girl.

Becky had been right, the description of the man didn’t sound like Will. It was a very generic description of a dark-haired man, and I agreed with her opinion that no witness—no female, anyway—could have forgotten Will. I breathed a sigh of relief. He might have been a little out there for me, but at least I hadn’t made out with a felon.

The science department always met the first Monday of the month, holiday or no holiday. When classes were over, we duly assembled with varying displays of stoicism, grumbling or noble suffering, except for Roger who seemed particularly excited today, doubtlessly with the anticipated pleasure of cutting short my indifferent career. Carol came in last, late and out of breath. She gave me a surreptitious wink as she assumed her usual position on my left, and then studiously ignored me as Roger opened the meeting.

“The first order of business,” Roger began after a glance at his typewritten agenda, “is, once again, the supplies budget. I remind you that all receipts must be turned in before the semester ends. That’s two weeks, people. I encourage you all to order now what supplies you will need for the third quarter.”

Frustrated, I closed my eyes and counted to ten. It was abundantly clear Roger had filed me under New Business; he was going to make me wait until the end of the meeting. Torturing me that way was just the sort of power abuse he delighted in. If he was lucky, we’d run out of time before we could discuss me. I’d either have to suffer for another month or be the reason why everyone had to reconvene another day, conveniently ensuring enough animosity toward me that he could push forward whatever draconian plan he devised.

My discomfort must have been apparent, for Carol put a restraining hand on my arm under the table.

“Roger,” she said briskly, in the firm, no-nonsense voice that made her students sit up and listen, “I think we are all clear on the budget issue by now. I move we discuss the emergency issue of how to accommodate Jo’s disability.”

Roger’s heavy eyebrows formed a deep V over his small black eyes. He raised his voice a little and replied irritably, “New Business is always discussed at the end of the meeting, Carol.”

“Pressing issues preempt Continuing Business, and are discussed at the beginning of the meeting, Roger,” she corrected.

“I’m with Carol,” Becky said. “I move to table the budget discussion so we can figure out a way to help Jo.”

Grandmotherly Mary Mudget looked up from her knitting. Mary taught seventh grade science and, despite a rather crisp demeanor, was the sort of teacher so beloved her students came back to visit her years later. The emerging pale pink sweater was for one of their progeny. She fixed Roger with a stern look. “Second.”

Bob’s handsome blond head jerked up as he pulled his attention away from the coaching diagram hidden in his notebook. “What’s wrong with Jo?”

I was getting tired of being talked about as if I were a pesky line item in the budget. “I’ve got a sun allergy,” I said. “I can’t be exposed to any sunlight, even through a window, or I get all red and crusty.”

“It is not appropriate to discuss one’s personal medical issues in the department meeting—”

“No way, man, that sucks!” Bob said sympathetically, ignoring Roger. “Even if you wear sunscreen?”

“Even if I slather myself in a thick white coating of zinc oxide.”

“That’s awful! So you can’t even bike to work anymore or anything?”

“Bob, Jo, can you please continue your personal discussions after the meeting?” Roger said. The fluorescent track lighting turned Roger’s olive complexion a sickly green and he looked even more like a swamp thing than usual as he glared at us.

“This is more important than the stupid budget, Roger,” Bob said.

“Yeah,” piped in Kendra, putting down her own coaching diagrams.

Touched by (nearly) everyone’s concern, I looked away and blinked a few times, willing myself not to show weakness in front of Roger.

“Jo’s room is fine in the morning, I think,” Carol said, taking control of the meeting, “until around eleven when the sun hits that part of the building.”

“She can switch rooms with me,” offered Alan. “I’m on the other side of the building and have the opposite sun pattern.” Alan was the rather studious African-American physics teacher. He taught just across the hall from me, but I didn’t know him very well. He kept to himself. Carol says it’s because he’s avoiding all eye contact until the open season for college letters of recommendations is over.

“Impractical,” Roger said dismissively. “Her room’s not set up for physics labs.”

“Why not my room then,” Kendra said.

“Her rooms not set up for physical science labs either,” Roger said, looking almost cheerful. He seemed to enjoy shooting down ideas.

I began to panic in earnest. On my salary, I could barely afford my tiny apartment, and had no savings to speak of. If I lost this job, I’d have to move back in with my parents.

Unexpectedly, it was not Carol or Becky, but Mary Mudget who leapt to my rescue, the knight with the iron-gray bun. “Well then, why doesn’t Jo teach biology in the afternoon? The semester ends in two weeks; it will hardly be a continuation issue, and she does have a degree in the subject.” She spoke mildly, as if we were discussing nothing more important than our spring vacation plans, her knitting needles clicking away in a blur of pink Angora. “Taking over my seventh grade classes is a little tricky because earth science is not my forte, but she could certainly switch with Bob and teach tenth grade biology.”

Roger gaped at her. He taught a mix of seventh and ninth grade science, showing his commitment to both Upper and Lower School and his versatility as a teacher. Because self-promotion comes as naturally as breathing to Roger, this had all been made clear to me within five minutes of meeting him. However, despite all the self-aggrandizing pomp, everyone knows he wants biology, the plum of high school science, but that was Bob’s job. Bob had a Ph.D. from Berkeley. Don’t ask me what Bob was doing teaching high school with those credentials. If I had ‘em, I’d be out of there faster than you can say “big paycheck”.

The idea that I, a green teacher, would get Roger’s coveted biology class turned the man’s face a deeper shade of red than my own sun-damaged one. “No!” he burst out. “It is inappropriate. The students, the parents…” he sputtered angrily.

“I think Roger’s right,” Carol said. She pitched her voice a little louder to cover my gasp of surprise. “It would be best for Jo’s students if she continued to teach them.”

Well that was something, I thought. At least she had implied I was a good teacher as she let me down.

She pulled some photocopied pages from her notebook and handed a copy to Roger. “I have three estimates for true blackout curtains for Jo’s room. They don’t let in any visible light and block a hundred percent of UV rays. But they do let air circulate.”

BOOK: Underdead
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