The Impostor Carla Cluckins

Aiden Harcourt knew she was smarter than me. It didn’t matter I was her teacher. Aiden Harcourt knew there was not a single person—student or faculty—in all of Pine Woods Middle School who was half as bright as she was. And because the Pine Woods school district had a robust gifted and talented program, she spent every day between Kindergarten and seventh grade being told she was special, and smart, and full of potential. God wrote her a golden ticket, and He stuck it in her skull, and only an idiot would get in her way.

Today, that idiot was me, standing beside her outside the school chicken coop.

“That rooster is not Carla Cluckins,” said Aiden.

“It’s a chicken. And yes,” I said, “it is.”

“Carla Cluckins is this big.” Aiden held her hands a good foot apart. She was actually being too generous; Carla was only ten inches from beak to tail when she exploded.

“That was a week ago.” I folded my arms across my tie and tried to stand up straight. “Chickens grow.”

“He has spurs. He has a wattle. He has a comb. He. Is. A. Rooster.”

“I’m sorry, Aiden. You’re a smart kid, but you have failed to sex this chicken.”

She turned bright red and pulled up the hood of her sweatshirt. It was the first full week of April, and the students’ first day back since the end of spring break, but the days were still cold and gray.

“There’s something else,” she said, not looking at me. She tugged the drawstrings of her hood so that it cinched up around her face. “I know that rooster.”

I should never have agreed to come out to the coop. I should have said no as soon as she asked. But she didn’t say a thing during fifth period, when we came out to check our rain collectors. When she came back to class after the final bell, asking if she could check her rain level one more time, I didn’t see this coming. I didn’t figure it out until we walked out the door, and she marched straight past her rain collector and up to the Carla Cluckins. Or rather, the bird I stole to replace her.

“What do you mean,” I asked finally, “that you know that chicken?”

“I saw him at the Everest School of Academic Excellence,” she said. “I’m applying to go there for high school. And that rooster is definitely theirs.”

“It’s not that easy to get in to that school,” I said.

“It is if you’re smart.”

“Well, you’re still completely wrong,” I said. “That is not their chicken.”

It was. It absolutely was. Because Everest was the only place I knew I could get a chicken on short notice. The school has chickens, and goats, and I hear they’re thinking about getting a moderately-sized cow. They’ve practically got a working farm over there, run on child labor.

It was bad luck that I stole a rooster. Bad luck, and a question of convenience, and certainly the vodka played a factor. And also the fact that they apparently have an aversion to owning a normal chicken, a chicken with white fluffy feathers and a pointed yellow beak. The chickens at Everest were like museum pieces, colorful and ornate and which you had to identify using the giant, laminated illustration posted outside the coops. Look, mummy! Mummy! A Belgian Mechelse kalkoenkop! What a wonderful chicken it is, mummy! Fucking ridiculous.

What I’m getting at is that when I stole the new Carla Cluckins, I just went for the plainest bird I could find, and the smallest, and the one that didn’t peck me. Carla Cluckins was the only surviving chicken from a set of six chicks, and the kids were pretty sensitive about it; I couldn’t shoulder the blame for killing the last of them. At three in the morning, the possibility I might accidentally grab a rooster never occurred to me. I was pretty drunk by then, and winding down a very bad night.

“They’re looking for the thief, you know. There’s even a reward.”

I looked at her. With her hood up she was inscrutable. But I suspected that, if she wanted the reward, she wouldn’t bother to bring me here. She must be after something else.

Aiden turned to me then, like she followed my thoughts. She pulled the drawstrings tighter.

“I want an A.”

I waited for the other shoe to drop, but there was no other demand.

“That’s it? You want a good grade?”

“I know you don’t have any money.”

“You don’t have to blackmail me to get an A in science class.” I didn’t have to say why. We both knew she was smart.

“I want an A for doing nothing,” she said. “You’re going to say I’m in independent study. I’m going to sit in the back of fifth period every day and use it as a study hall.”

“And that’ll be it?” I asked. “You won’t drop hints to the other kids, or ask them if they notice anything different about Carla Cluckins, or post her picture on Facebook? You’re not going to draw any attention to me or the chicken whatsoever?”

“Rooster,” she said. And then she stuck out her hand. It was oddly formal, but I shook it. “You’d better figure out eggs. People are going to wonder why it’s not laying.”

“Maybe she’s shy,” I said, but Aiden had already turned to walk back toward the school. I stayed outside a while longer. It wasn’t hard to see how the boards on the coop didn’t match anymore, or how there were chunks of twisted chicken wire that had been peeled back and stapled down for no clear reason. The thing always had a “homemade” look, but now even at a casual glance you’d be generous to describe it as “hastily-cobbled.” It looked exactly as though somebody had run it over with a car and tried to patch it back together.

It had been a very, very bad night.

 

*

 

I knew I wanted to be a teacher at sixteen. That’s when I had Mr. Tilden.

Every kid has a favorite teacher, but if you’re going into the profession I think you’ve got to experience something special. A real-life Dead Poets Society, you know? That’s what Mr. Tilden was like. He was my junior-year English teacher, and sometimes the way he taught class, it was like being at a revival. You’d stumble out all keyed up, crying over Ma Joad or furious over Jay Gatsby, and you’d have to work to pull yourself together before your next class so you could plot a sine wave on your TI-84.

Not every day was like that. Sometimes he’d just talk to us. He’d sit in his chair behind the wooden podium, and he’d get this faraway look staring at the back of the room, and he’d ask us a question. There was no wrong answer, but you had to be careful anyway, because he could pull things out of you that might be okay to say to him but that maybe you didn’t want to say in front of twenty-eight classmates. Nobody ever confessed to murder or anything, but you might say you how really felt about things. How you felt scared or alone or like you couldn’t be loved, or how your parents treated you like an adult in all the wrong ways. We weren’t just taught by Mr. Tilden. We loved him, all of us, because he told us his truths and because he listened to ours.

That’s when I knew what I wanted in life. I wanted to be the one up there, sitting in front of the class. I wanted to tell them all the stuff I knew, share my hard-won lessons, teach them everything I could about how to live your life and what matters most and what real success actually looks like.

I got a D in English because I couldn’t write papers for shit, but that didn’t matter. I was pretty good at science, and I enjoyed it, so when I got to college that’s the track I took. Sure, book discussions might lend themselves a little more to Mr. Tilden’s style of teaching, but there was just as much magic in the universe. The birth of stars, the vastness of infinity, the miracle of life; I had plenty to work with.

So I thought. But once I got in a classroom? Nobody—not one student—actually gave a shit.

It wasn’t just the G&T kids, who liked to get smart if I misremembered some fact about the universe. It was everybody. Nothing I said got through to anyone. I’d get a couple minutes into class, get warmed up to introduce them to the hard truths of entropy, and Roland Luttrell would stick his hand up from the back and ask if it would be on the test. And I learned real fast that if I said no they’d all check out. Heads down, phones out, papers footballed. I couldn’t do anything about it, either, because I was already falling short by common core standards. I couldn’t start knocking the mandatory questions off tests to make room for something like, In light of Earth’s destiny to be swallowed by her own sun, how does Man make meaning? Not with the state board of education on my back.

Pine Woods was the only job I ever had where I didn’t wear a nametag, and it only took one semester to make me hate teaching.

When I heard there was an opening at Everest, I cautiously applied. I made it through two rounds of interviews, and even sat in on a class, where I realized a teaching job there was everything I imagined: The kids cared. The teachers inspired. The school had a mission. I was desperate to be a part of it.

So, yeah. I took it pretty hard when I didn’t get the job. I bought a bottle of vodka, and I felt sorry for myself, and at some point that night I realized I’d forgotten to feed the last Pine Woods chicken. I meant to park next to the coop, not on top of it. Things only got worse from there.

 

*

 

For the first three weeks of our arrangement, Aiden’s plan worked perfectly. She wasn’t exactly popular in class. She wasn’t popular in school, for that matter. To the other kids it must have made sense that she didn’t participate anymore. For those three weeks, not a single one of them asked why she worked at a table alone with her back to the classroom. As far as they were concerned, it didn’t look like a special privilege. It just looked like the natural order of things working itself out.

But after those three weeks, the countdown to testing began. The red lessons came out of the drawer. And that’s when it all went to shit.

During part of the school year, I can teach what I like. Those lesson plans I keep in a blue folder. But when it comes time to teach to the test, I pull out the red folder, for a sequence of lessons on the scientific method. The “final” for each class is a series of short presentations, a science fair, in which students take turns explaining their experiments from hypothesis to conclusion. Since it’s seventh grade, they can’t really do anything that interesting. They can’t test drugs on animals or run a fake prison. Mostly it’s boring stuff, like “Will bleach kill a gardenia? Hypothesis: Yes.” That kind of thing.

For the first ten minutes of the first red lesson day, everything was fine. I showed the class a short video to explain the scientific method. At minute eleven, I assigned them all small groups. At minute twelve, Tyson Whittaker’s hand shot up.

“No bathroom breaks right now,” I said. “Class just started.”

“Why doesn’t Aiden get a group?” Tyson asked.

“Aiden’s doing independent study.”

“Why’s she get to do that?”

“Because she’s gifted.”

I’m gifted,” said Tyson. He wasn’t lying. He came from the same G&T cohort Aiden did.

“This is test prep,” I said. “You need it for the state exam.”

“So does she.”

About this time I realized that the entire class was listening. Tyson had challenged their assumption that Aiden was sequestered for being a weirdo. Now, not only did they realize that might be wrong, but there was an added implication that she was being unjustly excused from work. To middle schoolers, that kind of unfairness is blood in the water. If I couldn’t think fast, there’d be insurrection.

“Aiden’s doing her own experiment,” I said. “The whole thing, by herself. If you don’t want to work with a group, you’re welcome to do one all by yourself, too.”

The insurrection fizzled. Now no one but Tyson looked at me, for fear anyone who argued might get stuck working on their own as well.

“So, what, she’s going to present all on her own?”

“Obviously.”

“She’s the quietest kid in class!”

“Why don’t you mind your own business and stop wasting class time? Unless everyone wants to work on their own?”

The insurrection took up arms again, but this time against one of their own.

“Shut the fuck up, Tyson,” somebody hissed. I pretended not to hear, studying the loose papers on my desk.

“Okay,” I said loudly. “If nobody has anything else…?”

They didn’t. The lesson resumed.

 

*

 

Aiden confronted me after school.

“I’m not doing a presentation.”

“What was I supposed to tell them?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “But if you make me do the presentation, I’m going to tell everyone about the rooster you stole.”

“Nobody’s going to remember. It’ll take us three days to get through all those presentations. Trust me, they won’t be clamoring to hear from you. We’ll do the last ones on Friday and they’ll forget by the weekend.” She didn’t look convinced, so I forced myself to smile. “Hey, I’ve been doing this for a while. I know how kids think.”

“I want this time to study,” she said. She kind this forced growl in her voice, like she was trying to be tough, but it sounded more like she had a cold. “I need it.”

She grabbed the keyboard off my desk and started digging her fingers into the keys.

“Jesus, take it easy. What are you trying to do with that, break it? Give that to me.”

She pulled loose a handful of the keys and threw them across the room before dropping the keyboard on the ground.

“Don’t mess with me,” she said. Her growl turned into a cough.

As soon as she left, I went out to the coop. I wondered if I was pushing Aiden too far, or letting her push herself too far. What was I doing, anyway, negotiating with a seventh grader? The way you win a hostage situation is you shoot the hostage. That way nobody’s got anything over you.

I went inside the coop with Carla Cluckins, trying to decide what to do. I could just leave the gate open. Maybe the bird would wander out. Maybe something else, a fox or a weasel, would wander in. But if the bird did wander out, and some dimwitted Good Samaritan found it before the fox did, would they take it to Pine Woods, or return it to Everest? Or worse, what if somebody posted a picture online and people figured out that our bird was the same one as Everest’s?

But killing it wasn’t great, either. There’s not a lot of animals that wring a chicken’s neck, which was the only way I knew how to kill one. Then I thought—and I know this is a crazy idea, but I was just brainstorming, and there are no bad ideas in brainstorming—I thought maybe I could bite through the bird’s neck so it would look like a raccoon had killed it. As a plan it was better in terms of plausibility, but worse in every other conceivable way.

At this point I held the chicken by the neck. All I had to do was give it a cold, quick twist, and the worst would be over. I didn’t have to fake a murder scene. Just wring the neck, get rid of the body, and leave the gate open as an alibi. I started to squeeze a little, and the chicken started to squirm. Somewhere in the distance a car door slammed, and I glanced back nervously over my shoulder. That’s when I saw it: The security camera mounted on the side of the school. It was pointed straight at the coop.

I set Carla Cluckins back down.

 

*

 

Harry Hudlow was the principal of Pine Woods Middle School, and the man who hired me. He was forty-nine years old and had a master’s degree in school administration, but it was public knowledge that he’d never been a teacher. His exact journey to his current position was unknown. So far as I could tell, what qualified Mr. Hudlow to be the principal was the fact that he was our principal. Fresh from my attempt to assassinate a popular school chicken, I had to question Mr. Hudlow’s judgment in selecting faculty. But that’s not what brought me to his office.

“When did we get security cameras?”

He looked pointedly at the wall where a camera watched the two of us, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

“We’ve had them for years,” he said. “You’re not my most observant teacher, are you?”

His office assistant snickered. Every year there was some snot nose who hung around the front office, making copies or filing paperwork or running hall passes to the classrooms. I didn’t recognize the kid in Mr. Hudlow’s office today, but I knew the type of bully bait that tended to take the job. Send this kid to Soviet Russia and he’d sell parents to Stalin for a pat on the head.

“I just noticed the one watching the chicken,” I went on. “I wondered if it caught anything. I thought I saw some fox tracks out there.”

He turned back to his computer. A moment later, he turned his monitor around to face me. On screen was the black and white feed from the camera, showing the coop in 1080p.

“Here,” he announced proudly, “is the video.”

“Right,” I said, trying to seem both suitably impressed and eager to move on. “Yes. That’s great. But I wanted to know if it caught anything.”

“Oh I don’t know,” said Mr. Hudlow. “Jesus, what do you think, I watch this stuff for fun?”

“But it is recording.”

I could see Mr. Hudlow’s opinion of me plummet, but I had to know what I was up against. If I let Carla Cluckins out, would he see? And—much, much worse—could he know that I killed the original?

“Yes, it is recording. It’s a video camera.”

“So if something did happen…”

“We’d catch it.” He crossed his arms and rested them on the top of his belly. “Roland Luttrell’s dad paid for that. Said his son had been traumatized by the number of dead chickens this school has produced. I meant to tell you, but…” He searched for the right choice of words. “I didn’t. It was a pretty good donation, actually. School security funds. We got the resource officer a new gun.” He pointed his finger at me, cocked his thumb, and pretended to shoot me in the gut. Then Mr. Hudlow shot his office assistant. The boy played along—he leapt up, spun around screaming, then collapsed on the couch.

Safety school,” said Mr. Hudlow.

 

*

 

Two weeks into the red lesson plans, everyone was required to present a short, extemporaneous update on their experiments. It caught me completely off guard. Students should be able to state clearly their hypothesis, a brief overview of the data collected so far, and their anticipated results. 30 min. Did I write that? I had to scrub it, for Aiden’s sake, but thirty minutes was an enormous gulf of time to fill. I called the media center.

“I need a TV cart and a video for fifth period.”

“What video?”

“I don’t care. Anything Bill Nye.”

“Okay, let me check,” said the librarian. I stared at the microwave burrito on my desk, trying to get back my appetite. “All our carts are checked out.”

“What?”

“All our carts are checked out,” she repeated. “After lunch is a pretty popular time for videos.”

“Well give me some options here! What do you have?”

“We don’t have a TV, but we do have Bill Nye at the Earth’s Core. Do you want it?”

“What the fuck am I supposed to watch it on?”

“You could see if it’s on YouTube.”

I hung up. The librarian was an idiot, but that wasn’t a bad idea. The bell rang. I was still looking online as the kids filtered in, and I called Aiden to my desk.

“Can you ad-lib something about your experiment?” I asked. “Like if you had to present?”

“I don’t have an experiment.”

“Hence the ‘ad-lib,’ Gifted. You might have to make something up if I can’t find a good video.”

She stepped around my desk and pushed me away from the computer. I half-expected her to break my keyboard again.

“What are you looking for?” she asked.

“Something about science.”

Aiden glanced back at me, just long enough to make sure I registered the disgust on her face, and about two seconds later she had the PBS Science Kids channel pulled up. Each video was about three minutes long.

“Will these work?”

“We’ll have to watch ten of them.”

“So, yes?”

“Sure,” I said.

The second bell rang, and I gathered everyone’s attention, then turned my monitor as best I could to face the class. The ones who were going to watch had to sit sideways to see, but a not insignificant number already had their heads down, ready to nap for as long as I’d let them. Which, according to the lesson plan, was a good half-hour. After that, Aiden would be off the hook to present about her non-existent experiment, and the lesson could get back on track.

I was just cueing up the fourth video, “Magma,” when my door opened. I cleared my throat, trying to wake up the sleepers, but there wasn’t time. I just hoped it wasn’t Mr. Hudlow, or one of his stool pigeon lackeys. And it wasn’t. It was somebody much, much worse.

It was Aiden’s mother.

 

*

 

“Aiden tells me that you haven’t been assigning her homework.”

It was just the two of us, standing in front of the science hall bulletin board. Every month a new classroom decided how to decorate it. Right now it was Mr. Murphy’s turn, and each of his kids had written a poem about their favorite planet. Mars and Jupiter were well-represented, and some nascent genius had slipped a Uranus poem through, rhyming it to “pain us.” I kept promising my kids that we’d get our turn, but secretly felt they had not earned the privilege.

“That’s right,” I said, thinking quickly. “She’s doing independent study.”

“And what’s the rubric for that?

“It’s kind of a pass/fail thing. She’s on track for an A,” I added.

I tried to guess what, specifically, Aiden told her mother. Mrs. Harcourt wasn’t the kind to let things slide. She would have grilled Aiden for hours, and eventually Aiden would cough up some half-convincing lie, and because she was smart it would be detailed, buttressed by an internally consistent logic. The problem was I had no idea what that lie would be, and I wasn’t as smart as Aiden.

“I’d like to see the criteria she’s being graded against,” said Mrs. Harcourt.

“Ah,” I said. “Well. Actually, it might be easier to show you.”

I stuck my head in the door and told the kids to hang tight, I’d be back in ten minutes. I ignored the fact that the moaning I heard from my computer speakers did not sound like publicly funded content about the solar system. Mrs. Harcourt walked briskly beside me as I led her through the double doors at the end of the hall, down the path along the soccer field, and out to the coop. The impostor Carla Cluckins strutted toward us, expecting kids with feed. Instead it was just us, stood there empty-handed.

“Aiden is raising this chicken,” I said. “She feeds it, she waters it, she cleans up the shit. And she’s done a great, great job.”

“That,” said Mrs. Harcourt, “is a rooster.”

I squinted at the bird.

“Huh.”

Mrs. Harcourt started to say something else, then froze. She bent down and stared, then knelt, her fingers hooking around the chicken wire for balance. Carla Cluckins came so close that its vicious little beak could have gouged holes in her knuckles, but instead it only regarded her curiously. Something passed between them, and my instincts told me I’d better interrupt. I clapped, loudly, and scared away the bird.

“Sorry,” I said. “It got that look in its eye. It was going to peck you.”

“That’s the missing rooster from Everest,” said Mrs. Harcourt. It wasn’t a question. It wasn’t even an accusation, exactly. It was just a bald statement of fact she felt compelled to say out loud, like when the terminally dull step into the rain and announce, hey look, it’s raining! My heart sank.

“Is it?” I whispered.

“I don’t understand,” she said. “Why is it here?”

“It’s complicated,” I said, “but, the truth is, Aiden stole it.”

Mrs. Harcourt’s mouth fell open. “Excuse me?”

“She came to me with the chicken,” I said, the lie uncapped and pouring out. “I’m not sure I understand why she stole it, but she did, and said if the principal at Everest found out he wouldn’t let her in. So I said, hey, we’ve got a chicken coop, and it’s not like Mr. Hudlow’s the brightest bulb. Why don’t we just keep him here until we figure out what to do?”

“Oh my god.” Mrs. Harcourt’s face told me she understood the full gravity of what her daughter’s crime. This one impulsive act could undermine their efforts to get her the hell out of the Pine Woods school district. “Oh, Aiden.”

“She seems stressed,” I said. “That’s why I’ve been so easy on her lately. What are grades, really, compared to a kid’s mental health? We both know how smart she is. And we both know she should be at Everest, right?”

Mrs. Harcourt nodded, but said, “It’s too dangerous to keep that bird here. If I recognize it, someone else will.”

“Absolutely agree,” I said. “But don’t you worry. I have a plan.”

 

*

 

Aiden and I got our stories straight after school. She wasn’t happy about what I’d told her mom, but agreed that sticking to my story was the best way to maintain the status quo—namely, her getting an A while using my class as a study hall.

The only thing left was for Aiden to sell our story at home. Mrs. Harcourt wouldn’t confront her during school hours, since it might upset Aiden too much. She had an Algebra test in seventh period she couldn’t afford to bomb. So I warned Aiden that her mom was going to want to have a Talk About Things at home, and that if she didn’t want to get science homework she’d better put on a convincing performance.

“We all want the same thing,” I said. “And that’s for you to attend school at Everest.”

“That’s not what you want,” said Aiden. “You want to get away with stealing the rooster.”

“I can want two things.”

“I’m just going to warn you now,” said Aiden. “If this falls apart, I’m going to tell the truth. I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“You blackmailed a teacher.”

“Yeah, but you agreed to it. So it’s still your fault.”

“If you tell the truth, you’ll be stuck with the normies forever. And you won’t have any extra study time for your other classes.”

I knew arguing was pointless. Aiden had already done the calculations. She knew what her advantages were, and how to work them. I had nothing.

That night was a very long night. I couldn’t sleep. I barely ate. I wanted to get drunk, but knew I needed to keep my wits about me. There was just no way to guess what was going on in the Harcourt household that evening. I kept checking online, refreshing feeds and timelines, thinking maybe I could suss something out. If only Mrs. Harcourt would post a cat picture or something, then I’d know there was nothing to worry about, that she wasn’t thinking about her daughter’s troubles or stolen chickens. But there was nothing—not from her, not from Aiden, and not from the Everest School of Academic Excellence.

I couldn’t get rid of the evidence, either. Not with the camera watching everything. Not with Mrs. Harcourt now an eyewitness. If Aiden ratted on me, my only hope was to come up with a better lie than the first one. But no lie would help me if they caught me disposing of the tell-tale rooster’s corpse.

I drove to the school at four-thirty in the morning, my stomach sour with too much coffee and my eyes dry from lack of sleep. I felt all scraped out, like somebody had reached down my throat with an ice cream scoop and gone to work. But I couldn’t sit at home doing nothing, either. Going through the motions of a regular day, even at that ungodly hour, was a strange comfort.

Coach Schneider’s blue Explorer was in the parking lot when I got there. I knew if I walked to the football stadium I’d find him running laps around the track or hustling up and down the steel steps in the stands. Our cross country team was terrible, yet Schneider was out there before dawn every morning, working himself like crazy. I couldn’t understand how somebody could be so disciplined in his own life, and so bad at leading anyone else. Why did they let someone like him stay in charge?

I parked in the side lot, just in case Schneider came back to his car. I didn’t want him to know I was there. I guess I knew, deep down, why I went to school so early. I was there to shut off Hudlow’s cameras. The whole network at once, so it wouldn’t look any more suspicious than it had to.

The only way to do it was to kill the breakers. Those I had access to—they were in a janitor’s closet, which anybody’s key could open. A more elegant solution would be to turn off the cameras at their source in Hudlow’s office, but that might as well have been the tomb of Tutankhamen for all the chance I had of getting in. My key was no good in his door, and I knew better than to try and break in. A man’s got to know his limits.

I threw the breakers in Hudlow’s wing of the school. Not a total shut down, but a pretty good swath. If Schneider came in now, he might not notice if he stayed over by the gym. If he wandered over toward the office, though, he’d definitely notice something. I had to move like I was up against a ticking clock.

I was going to kill Carla Cluckins. I know what I said before—that if I got rid of the bird the same night Aiden told the truth about me, it wasn’t going to look very good. But my plan had a couple things going for it: First, looking bad wasn’t the same as getting caught red-handed. Second, it was a plan of action; no more waiting around, stewing in my own guilt.

And I think I’d known it had to come to this. Probably I knew while I was standing outside the coop with Mrs. Harcourt. Sometimes it just takes a while to catch up to yourself, that’s all.

There was a near-empty sack of chicken feed in my classroom. I carried it out with me to the coop and dumped what little was left on the ground where it mixed with the dirt and the weeds, the food pellets and the chicken shit. Carla Cluckins stirred and strutted toward me, ready to go, ready to eat and crow and get this day going already. I paused to let it eat. Just for a second. Whether it was compassion or cowardice, I can’t say. I just know I hesitated. Then I wrung its neck.

 

*

 

Coach Schneider was there in the dark when I came back in.

“Power’s out.”

“Jesus!”

“Didn’t mean to startle you,” he said, pulling up the bottom of his shirt to wipe off his forehead. His torso was like a hairy slab of gristle. “Breakfast?”

I glanced down at the sack in my hand. It was heavy in one corner where Carla Cluckins’ body lay. At first I thought he was asking if I was going to cook it, then I realized he thought I’d been feeding the chicken. I’d left the door to the coop unlatched, to lay the groundwork for a nice, plausible lie. In a weird way, getting caught by Coach Schneider worked in my favor. I began living two moments at once—one here and now, where I was making friendly small talk with a gym teacher, and the other moment a few hours from now, when I’d explain to Mr. Hudlow how I left the coop open and got so distracted by the track coach that I forgot to go back out and close it.

“How’s the team look this year?” I asked.

“Terrible,” he admitted. “Worse than ever.”

We walked together to the janitor’s closet and I played dumb.

“I remember Mr. Hudlow told me to come here if there was a power outage,” I said. “But… did he mean for spare light bulbs?”

“I think the fuse box is in there,” said Coach Schneider. Something flapped in the bag at my side. “You okay?”

“Great,” I said. The bag twitched again, and there was an awful, guttural gurgle from next to my hip. I grabbed my stomach. “I think I’m going to shit myself.”

Coach Schneider took a big step back. I took the chicken and ran.

I found the nearest bathroom ducked inside a stall, then opened up the sack. Carla Cluckins made another awful sound and flapped its wings. I could tell by the angle of its neck that it was not okay. Not by a long shot. But I hadn’t done a very good job killing it, either.

Its legs kicked wildly as I tried to reach inside the bag again, and one of its spurs caught the knuckle of my thumb and cut my wrist along the bone, opening up a good two-inch gash. The blood spilled immediately. My lie about Carla Cluckins was going to be awfully fucking suspect if I was covered in bloody chicken scratches. I closed the bag again and tried to think of something. Maybe if I swung it as hard as I could against the ground…

But I didn’t have the stomach for that. I’d blown my first assassination attempt, and my nerves were shot to hell. That’s when I remembered the fridge.

Underneath my desk, just large enough to store a few unfinished science projects, I had a small refrigerator. It was airtight, padlocked, and no one would ever think to look inside it for a missing chicken. I didn’t know how long it takes a chicken to suffocate, but right now this seemed like the most merciful option available. Surely kinder than the hard tile floor.

The lights were back on when I came out of the bathroom, so I hustled to my classroom. Coach Schneider and I were no longer the only ones at school, either. It was nearly six o’clock now, a perfectly ordinary time for other teachers to trickle in with their bags and briefcases and cups of coffee. I must have looked terrible, or frantic, or both, because nobody tried to stop me for chit-chat. When I got to my classroom, I shut the door behind me and locked it. Then I got down on the floor, under my desk, and unlocked the fridge.

It smelled like formaldehyde, but it was cold. Carla Cluckins had stopped making noise, but now and then the bag would rustle and I’d feel its weight shift. I pulled a couple of empty glass bottles out of the refrigerator and pushed in the canvas sack. At the back of the fridge was a small dial, numbered 1 – 9. I turned the cold as high as it went.

“Sorry,” I said. It was all the benediction I could manage. I closed the refrigerator and replaced the lock, then opened the door to my room. This was okay. I was clear. As far as anyone knew, it was just another ordinary day at Pine Woods.

 

*

 

Aiden was a complete mystery when she walked into fifth period. Her face gave away nothing. She didn’t even look at me. I wanted to pull her aside and ask how about her night, if she told her mom anything I needed to know about. But I still had a class to run, and the red lesson plans didn’t leave me much wiggle room. I was going to have to wait until at least the fifteen-minute mark, when the kids had a short quiz before the next batch of presentations. That’d be my first break, and my first chance to call Aiden into the hallway.

“Okay, everybody, who can tell me what ‘falsifiable’ means?” I stood in front of the class, my question looming over all thirty of them, while they fussed and fidgeted and settled down. “Anybody?”

Tyson raised his hand.

“Today’s the last day of presentations, right?”

“Right,” I said. “Did you want to answer the question?”

“So today Aiden’s got to do one,” said Tyson. “Right?”

From her spot in the back of the room, Aiden raised her head but didn’t look at us. It reminded me of the way a cat listens, one ear cocked back while it pretends it’s up to something else.

“You need to worry about yourself,” I said. “You’re up for a presentation today too.”

Too,” said Tyson, “as in also. Me and her both today. Right?”

I sighed and shook my head, like this was the stupidest conversation I’d ever had.

“Right. Obviously.

That seemed to satisfy him. I couldn’t tell how Aiden felt. But hell, that was fine, I wasn’t above letting her stew. It’s not like I felt tip-top and fancy free.

We hit the fifteen-minute mark, and I passed the quizzes down the aisles. I was just giving my standard lecture about cheating when the classroom phone rang.

“Pass the rest of these out,” I said, and dropped the remaining stack on Tyson’s desk. When I got to the phone, I recognized the incoming extension. It was the principal’s office. “Hello?

“Could you come down here?”

“We’re in the middle of a test.”

“Perfect,” said Mr. Hudlow. “Good timing.”

“Can it wait until after school?” I tried not to let my nerves come out in my tone, but I’d been waiting for this all day. I knew, at some point, someone would notice the empty chicken coop. I just figured they’d tell me before Mr. Hudlow.

“Just get down here,” he snapped.

“Okay. Give me just…”

He hung up. This was bad.

I put the phone down, then turned back to my class. Everyone ignored me, diligently working away at their quizzes. Everyone except Aiden, diligently working on her math homework.

“I’m needed in Mr. Hudlow’s office,” I announced. The class looked at me in unison as the air charged with that special electricity kids generate on the verge of a chance to cheat. “If I’m not back before you’re done, start reading chapter five.”

I stared at the back of Aiden’s head as I left the classroom. I kept thinking that if she looked up, that was proof she didn’t do it, if she just glanced at me it would mean she didn’t rat me out. But she never looked, and I walked to Mr. Hudlow’s office like a man to the gallows.

When I got there, it was worse than I imagined.

“Ah,” said Mr. Hudlow, seeing me come in. “Sorry for the interruption, but I have someone here who wants to meet you.”

I glanced nervously at the tall, thin man sitting opposite my principal. He wore a cheap looking burgundy suit jacket, and what was left of his woefully thinning hair was trimmed into a careful flattop. He didn’t smile when he saw me, or stand to shake my hand. It was almost like he didn’t want to meet me at all.

“This is Dr. Joey Gables,” said Mr. Hudlow. “Principal of the Everest School of Academic Excellence.”

 

*

 

Wouldn’t it be great if I’d clocked him? Just punched out Dr. Gables right there, then socked Mr. Hudlow and turned over some chairs? Some part of me thought so, because that image flashed through my head even as I tried to keep my composure. Dr. Gables stood now and did shake my hand, six inches of skinny wrist jutting out of his jacket sleeve, and I took it.

“Nice to see you again,” said Dr. Gables. I glanced at Mr. Hudlow, who looked at me with suspicion.

“You too,” I said hurriedly. “I hope you’re not here for Mr. Hudlow’s job. Ha ha.”

“No,” said Dr. Gables, who did not laugh. “I hoped to get your opinion on Aiden Harcourt.”

“Aiden?”

“Yes. I… you knew she was planning to transfer?”

“Oh, yeah, right. Sorry. I thought she was a shoo-in, that’s all. I’m surprised you even want my opinion,” I said. Did that sound bitter? “I mean, you know, one look at her test scores and I figured you’d roll out the red carpet.”

“Indeed,” said Dr. Gables. “Actually, that’s not far from the plan. As you know, Aiden’s very bright. And even at a school like Everest, we provide different tracks for our student. Aiden would enter on our G&T track, which at our school means the best of the best.”

“Yikers,” I said.

“The question,” Dr. Gables went on, “is whether she’d be able to handle the workload. I’d like your honest assessment—how does Aiden handle stress?”

I pretended to think about the question, but I was already rehearsing what I’d say later to Aiden. You owe me. You so fucking owe me.

“She’s a real trooper,” I said. “There’s a lot of kids who balk at a challenge, but not Aiden. She just rolls up her sleeves and goes for it.”

“Have you ever noticed any signs of burnout? Any sign that, under stress, she may act out in unhealthy ways or exhibit troubling behavior?”

“Nah, the kid’s a pro. Honestly, our program’s not bad or anything, but I feel like it probably doesn’t push a kid like Aiden hard enough, you know what I mean?” I could see that Mr. Hudlow was scowling at me, but fine, let him scowl. We were in the endgame now; if I could tip the balance and get Aiden on the best track at the Everest School of Academic Excellence, there’d be no way she or her mother would tell anybody about the chicken. What was one bird against her bright and shining future?

MR. HUDLOW TO THE SCIENCE HALL IMMEDIATELY,” the intercom howled. “MR. HUDLOW TO THE SCIENCE HALL. IMMEDIATELY.”

It’s rare for a true classroom-clearing announcement to come through the intercom, but this was one of them. Mr. Hudlow, Dr. Gables, and I rushed out of the office, but already kids were spilling out their doors to see the commotion. Teachers were shouting all around us, trying to wrangle them back in their seats, but every one of those kids knew in their bones that if they obeyed they’d miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime event. They’d sooner accept a lifetime of in-school suspension than end up the one kid who didn’t bear witness to whatever madness required that desperate cry on the loudspeakers.

We made our way through the swarming mass of stinkpot middle schoolers, me pushing kids out of my way while shoving them into the path of the two principals. I had a terrible feeling in my stomach, a dread that this was somehow, some way, going to involve me. Whatever there was to see, I wanted to see it first.

“Everybody stand back!” a voice shouted. A teacher, though I couldn’t tell who. There was an unnerving raggedness to it, a strangled desperation. “Please! Give it room!”

Getting past the children was one thing, but at the end of the hall, gathered in front of my classroom, a small ring of adults had formed, teachers who were circled up to form a human barricade. When they saw me, their faces dropped. I was the last person they hoped to see.

“What? What’s wrong?” I asked, trying not to panic. “Is somebody hurt?”

Then I saw it. The body of Carla Cluckins in the center of the circle, one wing extended into the air like a sail. Its legs kicked weakly at the air, but it couldn’t keep itself upright. Its head was angled sharply back so that the top of its comb was nearly touching the carpet. It was astonishing that it made it so far outside my classroom. Then, in an explosive flurry of feathers, its wings beat and it tumbled a few feet forward. Then it stopped again, and its feet began that same sickly kick.

“Oh my god,” I heard Dr. Gables whisper. “It… it’s Birdy.”

Despite the ring of adults, some of the kids could see what was happening. I could tell because they started crying. Somebody had to do something. I looked to Mr. Hudlow and Dr. Gables, but neither man moved. We were all paralyzed by the scene.

Carla Cluckins flapped again. I felt myself willing it to die, thinking as hard as I could: You are a chicken. Your neck is broken. You have to stop this right now. It’s what we all had to think in that moment. And then Aiden Harcourt slipped under somebody’s arm and entered the circle. Without hesitation, she picked it up by the neck and rotated her arms, like stirring an enormous pot. It was not fast, but she was relentless, and the bird’s neck worked itself apart. We could hear the cracking of bones and still she did not cease. Aiden Harcourt did not stop what she was doing until the head of the chicken separated from the body, which dropped to the ground like a sack of feed.

Then, and only then, did she stop moving. Her arms dropped to her sides, and her hands fell open so that the head dropped limply beside her lime green sneaker. Then she looked at us—the principals and me—and if she recognized Dr. Gables it did not show on her face. Her expression was the same one I’d seen a million times before, back before the blackmail, back before she had a pass not to pay attention. It was the weariness of a student forced to take a lesson she had no interest in learning.

 

*

 

I found out later that the kids had unlocked the refrigerator when they heard strange noises coming from under my desk. Someone thought it was a ghost, someone else thought it wasn’t, and there was only one way to settle it. In my rush to see Mr. Hudlow I’d forgotten to take my keys. The kids had let loose the half-dead chicken and then followed it around screaming as it tried to flop its way to freedom.

I was fired. Not the same day; it took some time to settle things down, and more time for the truth to come to light. But it did, eventually, in a meeting with Mrs. Harcourt, me, and Mr. Hudlow. Once everything was out in the open—the exploded Carla Cluckins, the stolen replacement, the blackmail, the cover-up—it was pretty much over.

When the conversation was finished, though, a strange mood pervaded the room. I don’t know how to describe it. Have you ever had a fight with someone you loved, just some real intense blow-out where all the shit you’ve both carried for years is suddenly right there in the open, and it solves nothing but there’s still this eerie calm at the end of it? It was just like that; sheer, exhausted serenity.

We sat in that for a little while, and waited for the school resource officer to show up. He was supposed to wait right outside the office, but I guess he’d gone to the bathroom or something. When he showed up he’d escort me off school grounds, one hand on my shoulder and the other, I’m sure, on his gun. We sat, and we waited, and then Mrs. Harcourt asked, “How does someone end up here?”

“I had this great teacher once,” I said. “Mr. Tilden. After him, I felt like I found my calling.”

“I don’t think you did,” said Mrs. Harcourt.

I didn’t have the energy to argue. It was Mr. Hudlow who hired me, and who put me in charge of a bunch of kids. Who had hired Mr. Hudlow? And who’d hired that person? Once you started, you could go back like that forever. It was kind of comforting, really. I was the end state of a long, long chain reaction. But you don’t blame the result for the reaction that caused it. You don’t have to blame anything.

The resource officer finally showed up, and escorted me out of the office, through the hallways, and out the front door. It wasn’t exactly my Miranda rights, but he did give me a quick spiel about how I wasn’t allowed to step foot on school grounds, how I could expect to receive a formal notice of trespass, how violation of said notice would result in punitive legal action. I don’t know, I stopped listening at a certain point. When I got to my car, I stopped and took one last look at the school, ignoring the gestures the officer made at me from the sidewalk, and I wondered how Aiden would end up. Probably fine, I figured. Gifted kid are like that. Really the whole school would be fine one way or another. Despite our best intentions, despite the inspirations that spur us to try and do something noble, there’s not really any difference you can make to things. Really, there’s not.

Then, from somewhere so far away I couldn’t really tell what direction it came from, and at the completely wrong time of day for it, I heard a rooster crow. Knowing how to take a cue, I got in my car, and left.

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