HiLobrow is proud to present the thirty-sixth installment of Robert Waldron’s novel The School on the Fens. New installments will appear each Saturday for thirty-eight weeks. CLICK HERE to read all installments published thus far.
The following morning while driving to school, I decided to confront Farrell.
As I made my way to his office, I heard my heart pounding.
“Mary, is Farrell in yet?”
I proceeded toward the door.
“You can’t go in without an appointment,” she said, half-rising from her seat.
I ignored her, swung open the door, and shut it behind me. Farrell was sitting at his desk drinking his morning coffee and reading the Boston Globe. He looked up at me and smiled as if he knew I would come.
“Why did you release Tim’s stories? You must’ve known the harm they’d do.”
“I didn’t release them,” he said, lifting his coffee mug to his lips.
“Then who did?”
“A young lady by the name of Jane Davis,” he said. “She was seen in school passing out Tim’s work. Would you like me to inform her college choices about her dastardly deed?”
“I want you to admit that having sex with a student is wrong.”
He took a deep breath and audibly exhaled. He pointed to a seat, and I sat down.
“You don’t understand Classical the way I do,” he said, “because you’re not an alumnus. My older brother preceded me here, and he was brilliant. When I arrived, teachers who had had him as a student were constantly comparing me to him, but there wasn’t any comparison because I was a lousy student. My brother graduated in the top five of his class, and I graduated at the bottom. Seven years — I was kept back one year — of belittling remarks about how stupid I was. Tim represented all the Classical whiz kids who wouldn’t have given me the time of day when I was a student, kids who sneered at you if you didn’t go to an Ivy League college. When Tim and I — well, I couldn’t believe it; it was a fantasy-come-true. I was incredibly flattered, and to be frank I like Tim, he’s charming and funny. And don’t tell me I’m the adult and I should’ve known better because I know it. But there was no force involved, just two people who decided to do something intimate with each other, and I can’t undo it.”
“But you can do something about the present,” I said, surprised by his frankness.
“What do you want?” he said.
“Excuse me?” I said, not believing my ears.
“What do you want? If I can do it, I will.”
I listed my demands: Ed’s receiving a permanent contract, a personal call to Dartmouth on Tim’s behalf, and scrapping Nexus.
After a long silence, he said, “OK. Horgan’s got a job. The scuttlebutt is that he’s a good teacher, and our students like him. And Tim will get into Dartmouth, but I won’t scrap Nexus.”
“Can we compromise?” I found myself saying.
“What would you want?”
“You can’t demand teachers to give up their union rights.”
“All right… this program can help a lot of kids earn a Classical diploma.”
“I’ll speak to Maria and see what we can do.”
“She has a lot of clout with the union, and can make it work, if you’d give her a chance.”
“She hates me.”
“She hates what you do to people.”
He sat up straight and looked me in the eye, “Are you happy now?”
“Yes,” I said, but happier, I thought, if he weren’t headmaster.
“That’s it, nothing else?”
“That’s it,” I said, standing.
“Don’t you yourself want anything? Aren’t you interested in the chairmanship of the English department?”
“Are you offering it to me?”
“You’re the most qualified person for the job.”
“I thought it was a bribe.”
He laughed. “It was a bribe. You want the job or not.”
“On what condition?”
“No condition. You’re the right person for it.”
“I don’t get this,” I said. “Why the sudden change?”
“If I have any talent, it’s to know when things aren’t going my way.”
He took out a handkerchief and patted his moist forehead. “You’ll take the job?”
“Yes, but I’ll still be my own person.”
“Good, I’m tired of sycophants.”
I headed for the teachers’ lounge where I collapsed into Bill Thompson’s chair. I was of two minds: Either Farrell had woven some colossal web of a plot, and I was its prey, or he had indeed undergone a change of heart.
Maria arrived, “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Not a ghost but a real person.”
“People make you pale?” she said, handing me a cup of black coffee.
“This one did.”
“May I ask who it is?”
“I’m still not sure if I can believe what I saw.”
“Perhaps it was a ghost,” she said, teasingly.
“Well, there are two kinds of ghosts,” I said, “and they’re either damned or saved. Let’s hope I saw the saved.”
“Come on John, don’t be so enigmatic. It was Farrell, wasn’t it?”
“Today I saw him minus a few masks… he’s a wounded man.”
“I agree, but he’s also wounded a lot of people here at Classical.”
“I feel sorry for him. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?”
“You’re a compassionate man. But—”
“Remember that Rell’s a master of dissembling.”
I explained his capitulation, stunning her into an uncharacteristic silence.
Taking a seat, she said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if the reign of terror was really over?”
We looked at each other and broke into smiles.
ORIGINAL FICTION from HILOBROW: James Parker’s swearing-animal fable The Ballad of Cocky The Fox, later published in limited-edition paperback by HiLoBooks; plus: a newsletter, The Sniffer, by Patrick Cates, and further stories: “The Cockarillion”) | Karinne Keithley Syers’s hollow-earth adventure Linda, later published in limited-edition paperback; plus: ukulele music, and a “Floating Appendix”) | Matthew Battles’s stories “Gita Nova“, “Makes the Man,” “Imago,” “Camera Lucida,” “A Simple Message”, “Children of the Volcano”, “The Gnomon”, “Billable Memories”, “For Provisional Description of Superficial Features”, “The Dogs in the Trees”, “The Sovereignties of Invention”, and “Survivor: The Island of Dr. Moreau”; several of these later appeared in the collection The Sovereignties of Invention, published by Red Lemonade | Robert Waldron’s high-school campus roman à clef The School on the Fens | Peggy Nelson’s “Mood Indigo“, “Top Kill Fail“, and “Mercerism” | Annalee Newitz’s “The Great Oxygen Race” | Joshua Glenn’s “The Lawless One”, and the mashup story “Zarathustra vs. Swamp Thing” | Adam McGovern and Paolo Leandri’s Idoru Jones comics | John Holbo’s “Sugarplum Squeampunk” | “Another Corporate Death” (1) and “Another Corporate Death” (2) by Mike Fleisch | Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and Frank Fiorentino’s graphic novel “The Song of Otto” (excerpt) | “Manoj” and “Josh” by Vijay Balakrishnan | “Verge” by Chris Rossi, and his audio novel Low Priority Hero | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD (1.408-415) by Flourish Klink | EPIC WINS: THE KALEVALA (3.1-278) by James Parker | EPIC WINS: THE ARGONAUTICA (2.815-834) by Joshua Glenn | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD by Stephen Burt | EPIC WINS: THE MYTH OF THE ELK by Matthew Battles | EPIC WINS: GOTHAMIAD by Chad Parmenter | TROUBLED SUPERHUMAN CONTEST: Charles Pappas, “The Law” | CATASTROPHE CONTEST: Timothy Raymond, “Hem and the Flood” | TELEPATHY CONTEST: Rachel Ellis Adams, “Fatima, Can You Hear Me?” | OIL SPILL CONTEST: A.E. Smith, “Sound Thinking | LITTLE NEMO CAPTION CONTEST: Joe Lyons, “Necronomicon” | SPOOKY-KOOKY CONTEST: Tucker Cummings, “Well Marbled” | INVENT-A-HERO CONTEST: TG Gibbon, “The Firefly” | FANFICTION CONTEST: Lyette Mercier’s “Sex and the Single Superhero”