Samantha – Decision Time

Instead of handing out serious punishment to Samantha, Renee, and Dwayne for their pranks, Dr. Ashworth put them to work. Speaking separately to Samantha, he suggested she should consider applying for a military academy. At first appalled by the idea she began to give it some serious thought.

Despite Brian losing his life to an IED when he was really not cut out for military service, I couldn’t get the idea of going to an academy out of my head. It might have been that I was flattered by Principal Ashworth saying I was leadership material. I know that service was and is important to me. My parents – mostly my dad, of course – had drilled it into me all my life. I had to take the next step, at least finding out what was involved.

The internet was a big help. The service academies had reams of information on their websites. Okay, that was both a blessing and a disadvantage. Wading through all that data gave me a pretty good picture of what I might be getting into, but it also ate up a lot of my time. I spent most of my free time for several days researching both the Naval Academy and the Air Force Academy. I know, Dad was an admiral, but I looked at the Air Force because I really liked the idea of becoming a pilot, and I figured that even between the Navy and the Marine Corp, the odds of becoming a flier were better with the Air Force – after all, that was their job.

When I talked to Dad about it, he surprised me by suggesting I apply to both schools to increase my chances of being accepted. The remaining question was did I really want to go to an academy. I asked Mom and Dad to sit down with me to help me decide. We met around the kitchen table.

Dad started. “You know this has to be your decision, right?”

I nodded and looked at Mom.

She was frowning. “You were so upset when Brian died. Are you sure you want to put yourself in the same situation? You’d probably end up in a combat zone.”

Dad shook his head. “There are a few Navy and Air Force members on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq, but most of them are shipborne or on bases outside either country.”

I considered that for a second. “If I’m going into this business, I’ll serve where I’m needed. The risks might be lower in the Navy or the Air Force, but I wouldn’t avoid duty on the ground or flying over either country.”

Mom didn’t look happy with my response. I hadn’t thought about it until then, but I realized she was concerned about losing another child, me, to war. I spoke to her fear, “Mom, my risk would be really low. Women aren’t allowed in combat. Yes, if I get to fly, I might have to fly over places where fighting is going on – search and rescue, that sort of thing. I don’t know what kind of jobs I might end up with on the ground, but they would be away from the front line.”

She continued to frown. “I would still worry.”

“I know.”

When we adjourned, I hadn’t come to a definite decision, but I was definitely leaning toward applying for an academy, either the Navy or the Air Force. I went up to my room to think about it some more. It may seem funny, but I kept thinking that a combat role was appealing. Was it the idea that women could serve but couldn’t fight that was challenging me? I think that was what finally made my mind up.

Yes, I’m going to apply, and I’m going to learn all the combat skills better than the boys I’ll be going to school with. I’ll prove women can serve in combat roles.

Samantha – “The Suggestion”

Dr. Ashworth had surprised everyone by recognizing the courage, responsibility, and integrity the three pranksters had shown when they stepped forward and admitted their part in the pranks taking place at the school. His punishment – being a teacher’s assistant instead of having study hall – was light enough that Samantha was looking forward to it. That is, until Ashworth pulled her and her family aside.

When everyone else had left, Principal Ashworth gave the three of us a quick glance and settled on Dad. “I’ll be brief. I believe that Samantha has great leadership potential, but she needs discipline. I suggest you seriously consider having her apply for one of the military academies. I’d be more than happy to write a letter of recommendation.”

Dad turned and looked at me. He raised his eyebrows as if to ask what I thought of the idea. I’m sure he was thinking of how I had reacted to Brian’s death. Was I willing to put my life on the line if need be? That had to be my decision, and he knew it.

I was dumbfounded. My first thought was Where did he come up with that? I’ve had enough of the military.

Ashworth continued, “I don’t mean to be overstepping my bounds, but we had another student with similar talents last year. You may remember Kathryn Foxx.”

He looked at me. I nodded. She was a petite black girl and faster than anyone else in the state. As a sprinter she set more than one high school record. We were both on the track team. I can remember cheering her home more than once.

He added, “She was not only a champion athlete. She was clearly meant for a leadership role. I recommended she try out for one of the academies. She was accepted to the Air Force Academy and is there right now. From what I hear, she’s doing quite well. I believe you have that same quality.”

When he put it that way, I felt complemented, but still … The best I could say was, “Thank you, sir. I’ll have to give that serious consideration.” Mom gave me a look that said, “Really?”

––– # –––

As we pulled out of the school parking lot, Mom turned around in the front passenger seat and asked me the question out loud, “Did you really mean you’d give a military academy serious consideration?”

“I don’t know. At first blush I was ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ and I couldn’t think of any other way to answer him. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe I should give it some thought.” I didn’t know why but the irony appealed to me.

Dad looked at me in the rear view mirror. “If you want to serve, I’m with you all the way.”

“Thank you, sir. I appreciate that.” What was I doing? Service, was that it? Dad had always been all about service. Had his attitude worn off on me?

I thought about it all the way home. What was I going to do? After what had happened to Brian, I should be terrified of going into any branch of the military – Okay, maybe not the Coast Guard. No, come to think of it, they could be on the front line for drug runners and terrorists.

Yeah, I know, the “It’ll never happen to me” syndrome. It’s the reason smart people do stupid things, like smoking, or drinking and driving. So, if I signed up for an academy, would I be doing a stupid thing?

By the time we arrived at the house I was no more clear about what I was going to do than I was when Ashworth made the suggestion. I sat down in the living room and called Renee.

When she came to the phone, I started with, “Hi. Wow, was that different from what I expected.”

She agreed, “I know. I thought detention for sure for the rest of the year and maybe a delayed graduation. Scared the bejesus out of me, I’ll tell you.”

I had gone in expecting the worst, so I was resigned. But I couldn’t say that to Renee. “It was scary for sure … Guess what Principal Ashworth had to say after you left.”

“He didn’t tack on more punishment for you, did he?”

“He wants me to apply for a military academy.” I emphasized the punchline.

The silence on the other end of the line only lasted for a couple of seconds. Then “What!”  exploded from the phone. “Are you going to do it?”

“I don’t know. That’s why I called you. What do you think?”

“I think you’re crazy for even considering it.” She was still loud. “You’re lined up to go to MIT. With your GPA you might even get a scholarship.”

“MIT’s not exactly cheap, you know. Maybe with a scholarship, but I don’t want to get saddled with a humongous student loan.” I considered that. Another reason for a military academy: I’d get paid instead of incurring a debt. That’s not quite true. Academy graduates have a service commitment, but if you’re in to serve, it’s just part of your service.

“You sound like you’re actually thinking about this.”

I realized she was right. “I guess I am. At least I don’t hate the idea.”

“Well, good luck. You’re going to need it.” She almost sounded disgusted.

“Does that bother you?”

“Not really. I simply didn’t expect it.”

I hadn’t actually made up my mind. There were too many factors that I didn’t know about. “It’s not a done deal yet. I have to do some research before I make a final decision. … This is all going too fast for me.”

“Speaking of going too fast, this evening is going too fast. I still have work to do on an English paper. I’ve got to get to it. Talk to you later, and seriously, good luck with whatever you decide.”

With that she hung up, and I headed upstairs. I had some crucial thinking to do.

Samantha – The Verdict

Samantha had admitted to Dr. Ashworth that she had perpetrated several of the pranks that the detective had blamed Ingrid for. She tried to take full responsibility for them and keep Renee and Dwayne out of it, but they both showed up and admitted their parts. Ashworth had Ms. Farrow call their parents.

The first thing I thought of was being thankful that Dad was at work. I wondered if any of Renee’s or Dwayne’s parents were home at this time of day. I guessed we’d find out soon enough.

Principal Ashworth pointed us to the benches in the reception area. “While we’re contacting your parents, you can sit over there.” He ushered us out of his office and closed the door.

We sat and looked at each other, wondering what was going to happen. I realized that he hadn’t said we couldn’t talk, but I figured it would be safer to keep it quiet. I leaned toward Dwayne and Renee and spoke as quietly as I could, “Thanks, guys. That took guts.”

Dwayne retorted softly, “What you did took guts. We just figured Dr. Ashworth would worm it out of you eventually, and we’d be better off telling him ourselves. That doesn’t look like it made a whole lot of difference to him.” He nodded toward the closed door.

We sat in silence for an indefinite time. I could swear I heard to class change bells, although I know it wasn’t that long. I think we were all stewing over what type of disastrous punishment was coming our way considering that Ashworth had planned to suspend Ingrid for the rest of the semester. I had done the right thing, but it broke my heart to see tears running down Renee’s face. I wrapped my arms around her and let her bury her face in my shoulder.

Finally, Ashworth opened his door and walked over to us. “Not unexpectedly, your parents were unable to get here right away. So you three have a few hours to think about what you’ve done. Then you will return with your parents when they come in at 7:00 p.m. this evening. Now, Ms. Farrow will provide you notes for your teachers and you will rejoin your classes.”

I wondered how much of our minds would be on our classes.

––– # –––

Mom met me as I came in the door. “Honey, what have you done?” Her expression said she was really alarmed.

I stumbled through a clumsy explanation of what had been going on and went to my room without being told. I sat down at my desk but left the computer off. It was all I could do to keep from bawling. I realized that I had jeopardized not only my own chances at a good college but also Renee’s and Dwayne’s. Worse, I knew I had to face Dad, and that scared me more.

He surprised me when he got home. He apparently talked to Mom before coming up to my room. He knocked on the closed door. “Samantha, may I come in?”

“Yes, sir.” I got up and faced the door at attention.

He stopped about arm’s length in front of me. Astonishingly, he wasn’t scowling. Instead, he merely looked concerned. “So you’ve really gotten yourself in a fix. Contrary to the Klingon saying, ‘Revenge is a dish best served cold,’ revenge is not something to serve at all. It only brings more trouble with it. I hope you can see that now.”

He sat down on the bed and patted beside him. I joined him. “I’m sorry, Daddy. I truly am … more for the trouble I got Renee and Dwayne in than for what might happen to me.”

A faint smile flickered on his face. “That’s the reason I’m not yelling at you, sweet heart. You did the right thing by admitting your fault instead of leaving Ingrid blamed with what you did, and I was especially proud to hear that you tried to take full responsibility. I’ll see if there is any way to minimize the repercussions when we meet with your principal tonight.”

He stood and offered me his hand. “Let’s go down to dinner.”

We suffered through dinner in silence. I had absolutely no interest in eating. I simply shoved my food around on my plate. Mom kept looking at me without saying anything. Nelson watched me too. He started to ask a question, but Mom shushed him.

At last it was time to go back to school. We met the Williams and the Lindquists at the steps to the main entrance. Mr. Lindquist frowned and growled, especially when he looked at either me or Dwayne. Mrs. Williams had tears in her eyes. Mr. Williams seemed to be dealing with it unemotionally. And Mrs. Lindquist kept cringing away from her husband as he ranted.

Together we shuffled down the hall to the reception room. Principal Ashworth was waiting for us. “Good evening. Will you follow me please.”

He led us to the lunchroom. I hadn’t thought of it until then, but there was nowhere near enough room for all of us in his office. To my surprise all three home room teachers were in the lunch room, and they were all smiling. Were they there to enjoy hearing our punishment?

Ashworth had the parents and teachers sit down and left the three of us standing. He took a position in front of everyone. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I have a few words to say.” He beckoned Dwayne, Renee, and me to join him. Her it comes, I thought.

He cleared his throat. ”These young people have presented me with a conundrum. They performed a number of shenanigans over the past month or so. A detective I hired found evidence that Ingrid Hoffman had perpetrated the bulk of them, and I made ready to exact a suitable punishment on her. While I was doing so I apologized to Miss Pederson for having accused her of one of the pranks. This afternoon Miss Pederson came to me and admitted to a number of the tricks that Miss Hoffman was purported to have engineered.”

He looked around the room. “She also told me that she accepted full responsibility for those pranks. However, these two”—He pointed toward Renee and Dwayne.—“came into my office unbidden and admitted to assisting her.” Once again he paused.

“Technically I have every right and perhaps an obligation to punish them severely.” He peered at me as if he was thinking in terms of fifty years to life. “But a funny thing happened. As this all came together I understood why it had all happened. I’ve been a martinet and a pompous ass.” He let that soak in. My mind was spinning. What was going on here?

He continued, “The stunt Miss Pederson engineered at the football game thoroughly embarrassed me. I was so angry I would have gladly throttled the culprit. But when I faced that culprit and her laudable defense of someone who had caused her great pain and discomfort ­– and then her co-conspirators came to her defense, I began to realize what this was all about. I at least bore some of the responsibility for what had happened, and these three young people hadn’t done anything that really harmed anyone, not even me. I was embarrassed because of my own arrogance.”

Dad was the one who broke the silence. “So what are you going to do about these kids?”

Ashworth faced the three of us. “That’s my conundrum. They did cause several disturbances, and they shouldn’t get off scot-free. On the other hand the responsibility they showed needs to be recognized. I want them on my team. Therefore, I’ve established a new position for this school. The three of them will be assigned to serve as teachers assistants in place of study hall for the remainder of the school year. Miss Pederson will help Mrs. Cable, Miss Williams will help Ms. Foy, and Mr. Lindquist will help Mr. Yoshimoto.”

I knew what the punishment was. We couldn’t schedule last period study hall and leave school early. But compared to what he could have done to us, it would be painless and might actually be fun. I almost smiled.

Ashworth looked at our parents. “Kids will sometimes get into trouble. That’s life. You should all be proud of the responsibility and integrity your children have shown. I consider this matter closed … and please keep my admission to being a pompous ass to yourselves.”

He turned to me. “Miss Pederson, could I speak to you and your parents before you leave? I have one last – call it ‘suggestion.’”

Samantha – Coming Clean

Of all things, the inept detective had gotten one thing right. Ingrid had painted the graffiti on the school. That relieved Samantha immensely, but it didn’t last. He had also blamed Ingrid for the other pranks, and Dr. Ashworth had accepted that as fact. The more Samantha thought about it the more it made her feel guilty, especially since Ashworth was going to suspend Ingrid. Samantha’s moral code wouldn’t let her just walk away. She informed Dwayne and Renee that she was going to take sole responsibility for the pranks she was involved with.

Here I was standing across the counter from Ms. Farrow again. This time I was in real trouble. It seemed odd that she had actually smiled at me and seemed to think Principal Ashworth would be pleased to talk to me. I doubted it very much. To tell the truth I expected to be raked over the proverbial coals.

She walked over to the Principal’s door and rapped on the frame. “Miss Pederson to see you, sir.”

“Send her in.” It almost sounded jovial.

My knees went weak, and sweat formed on my forehead. I wished there were something to hold onto as I walked to his door. I stopped barely outside the door and stood there paralyzed.

“Come in. Come in.” He beckoned to me. “What can I do for you, Miss Pederson?”

I stood directly in front of his desk, and my words stuck in my throat. I was committed. I had to get them out.

He must have noticed my distress. “Is something wrong?”

I swallowed hard and said with a catch, “Yes … sir.”

He frowned. “Is it something I need to take care of?”

I realized I was slouching and straightened my back. My voice seemed to be coming from someone else. “No sir, it’s something I need to take care of.” My voice speeded up as if of its own accord. I reeled of the list of pranks I had been involved with, starting with the broadcast booth incident. “Sir, Ingrid had nothing to do with those. I take full responsibility for them. …” A tear ran down my cheek.

He leaned back in his chair and interlaced his fingers over his stomach. His expression was bland, almost as if he hadn’t heard me. I kept waiting for the explosion, but he sat in silence. Finally he leaned forward. “You realize that stunt with the broadcast booth was one of the most embarrassing experience I’ve ever had?”

I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t move. I stood there frozen, waiting for what came next.

He studied me for what seemed like forever, that same bland expression on his face, and my heart kept sinking the whole time. Finally, he spoke. “Miss Pederson, you have presented me with quite a conundrum.”—I did a quick check of my mental dictionary: a complex puzzle.—“First of all, you deliberately played a malicious prank on me. Then you had the courage to come forward when someone else was blamed for it. Moreover, that person had deliberately placed the blame for a prank she did on you. And I took her planted evidence over your word.”

He paused and stared at me again. “What should I do with you?”

I couldn’t think of anything to say.

“Well?”

I spoke hesitantly, “Sir, I expect the … appropriate punishment for … what I did, … whatever is standard. I expected that if I was caught going in.”

“I see.” He frowned slightly. “In other words you thought what I had done to you warranted your actions.” He didn’t say it as a question, but he seemed to be waiting for a response.

“I was angry. I had been blamed for something I hadn’t done, and my word had been doubted. Sir, I was brought up to believe that I should never tell a lie, and I don’t.”

Again he frowned slightly. “For that I apologize. But there is another point. I noted that you said you take full responsibility. Some of your pranks appeared to require more than one person. Did you have help?”

There it was. Was he going to keep pressing the issue of my helpers or would it stop with my admission there were others? Still, I wasn’t going to lie. “Sir, I’d rather not answer that.”

“Ah, but I must know your answer. Of course, the fact that you don’t want to answer clearly implies you’re protecting someone else.” His eyes bored into me.

I frantically tried to think of something to say that would clear Dwayne and Renee, but they had both volunteered. “Sir, as I said, ‘I accept full responsibility.’”

“So you refuse to implicate anyone else?” This time the frown had turned serious.

“Sir, I’d rather not …”

Ms. Farrow interrupted with a loud, “You can’t go in there.”

Principal Ashworth and I both looked at the door. Dwayne came through first, and Renee followed. Dwayne stopped on my right, and Renee stopped on my left. They both stood at a rigid attention.

Ashworth pushed his chair back and stood. He seemed to take on a force of authority. “What is this?” he growled.

Dwayne was first to speak. “Sir, Samantha didn’t do all of the practical jokes she’s admitting to by herself. We helped.” I could have kissed him.

I turned to him. “You didn’t have to do this.”

He and Renee responded at the same time. “Yes we did.”

Ashworth spoke in menacing tones, “Then you’re both going to share in her punishment. Is that what you wanted?”

I made one last try. “But I was responsible.”

It was as if Ashworth didn’t hear me. “Ms. Farrow, please contact Samantha Pederson’s, Dwayne Lindquist’s, and Renee Williams’ parents and ask them to come to the school right away.”

Well, I had tried.

Samantha – Dilemma

Samantha had told Dr. Ashworth that his detective was not only inept but was actually encouraging pranks because the pranksters were treating him as a challenge. Instead of blowing a fuse, Ashworth seemed to like the information. It gave him an excuse to fire a buffoon who obviously wasn’t getting the job done. She was hoping that was the end of it when Ashworth pulled her aside after class.

I hoped my sudden anxiety didn’t show. I was afraid any reason Principal Ashworth might have for wanting to talk to me wasn’t going to be favorable. I joined him out of the flow of students rushing to their lockers. “Yes, sir?”

“I want to thank you again for informing me of Mr. LeClerc’s unintended influence on the tomfoolery going on around the school.” He looked around as if to make sure no one was in hearing distance. “When I approached him to let him go, he had prepared a final report. He had identified the kingpin who was responsible for starting this nonsense.”

My heart thudded, and I struggled to keep a straight face. I was afraid my voice would crack if I asked who, so I waited for him to continue.

He didn’t seem to notice me holding back. “Ingrid Hoffman,” he continued, “According to what LeClerc heard students saying early in his investigation, Miss Hoffman painted the graffiti on the front of the building and followed up with several other practical jokes before I hired a private detective.” He paused. “It appears I owe you an apology. I trusted Miss Hoffman when she accused you of spreading rumors about Mrs. Finch and Mr. Browning and was biased to believe her accusation that you had done the graffiti.” So she was the one.

He continued, “I’ll see that she is suitably dealt with.”

That was it I was off the hook, and Ingrid was going to get hers. “If I may ask, sir, what do you have in mind?”

“I’ll have to confirm it with the superintendent, but I will probably suspend her for the rest of the semester.”

Much as I wanted Ingrid to be punished, I didn’t think the offense justified that stiff a punishment. “Isn’t that a little extreme, Sir.”

He looked at me quizzically. “Considering what she did to you, I would think you’d want a severe punishment.”

I shook my head. “I don’t know. Wanting her to be harshly punished merely seems vindictive to me I guess. And that’s not me. I mean, wouldn’t that make it hard for her to graduate with the rest of the class?”

He seemed to think about what I said before he said, “Well, in that case I may reconsider my position. Thank you, Miss Pederson.” He turned and walked away, leaving me standing there with my mouth open.

––– # –––

Renee caught up with me on my way out the front door. “What did the dictator have to say?”

I was still dazed. What had just happened? Had I really softened Principal Ashworth? It took me a second to respond.

She studied me. “Well?”

“He said that Sheerluck found out that Ingrid had painted the graffiti and had reported that she was also responsible for the majority of the pranks. He was going to suspend her for the remainder of the semester.”

Renee smiled. “Sounds good to me. She deserves it.”

“I don’t know. You and I both know she didn’t have anything to do with our practical jokes.” I paused. I had finally realized that Ingrid was getting blamed for what I had done, I and Renee and Dwayne. I whispered, “Oh my god.”

Renee gave me and odd look and asked, “What?”

I didn’t respond. I was too deep in thought. Principal Ashworth was going to punish Ingrid for what the three of us had done on top of what she had done. That wasn’t right, and it wasn’t fair. I had to clear her of our pranks. I mumbled, “I’ve got to do something.”

“What are you talking about?” Renee was staring at me as if I had lost my mind.

“We can’t let Ashworth punish Ingrid for what we did. You, Dwayne, and I have to figure out a way to prove she didn’t do our pranks.”

“That’s easy, confess.”

That hit me like a blow to the solar plexus. I couldn’t tell if she was serious, but it shocked me into thinking some more. I looked around to see if Dwayne remained in the dwindling crowd of students. I spotted him talking to a couple of the members of the basketball team. I grabbed Renee’s arm and pulled her with me. “Come.”

Dwayne saw us coming. “Hi, what’s up?”

I stared him in the eye. “We need to talk … privately.”

He turned to the other boys and shrugged, palms up. “See you guys later.” Then he followed Renee and me.

As soon as we were out of earshot, he asked, “What’s all this about?”

I scanned the area to make sure no one was approaching. Then I told him what I thought the problem was. He nodded and asked, “What do you propose to do about it?”

“I’ve been struggling with that. Renee”—I nodded at her—“suggested confessing. I don’t know how serious she was, but I can’t think of anything better.”

Dwayne shook his head. “I’m not fond of that idea.”

“Can you think of anything better?”

He scowled. “Better than volunteering to be punished? Letting it be comes to mind. After all, if she hadn’t framed you for the graffiti, none of this would have happened.”

I had expected something like this. I pressed the point. “But that would mean letting Ingrid be punished for what we did. Would that be right?”

He continued to scowl, but he said, “No, but I don’t like it. Come up with something else.”

Renee joined the discussion. “I feel really bad about this, but if Ashworth was going to suspend Ingrid, wouldn’t he do the same thing to us? I vote for letting it be.”

I couldn’t accept that. I had one last card to play. “Look, I understand where you’re coming from, but I consider this my responsibility. I can’t let it go. Here’s what I propose: I’ll go by myself and accept full responsibility for the pranks we pulled. If he asks me who else was involved, I’ll tell him it was all my fault and no one else needs to be punished.”

Dwayne had a final comment. “I don’t think he’ll let you get away with that.”

“I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do something to make it right.”

His shoulders slumped. “I guess we’ll have to risk it.”

No, I’ll have to risk it.

Samantha – Convincing Ashworth

The student council meeting had approved a motion to put up flyers around the school and pass them out to every student. A committee was formed to prepare the flyer and given a short fuse for getting it done. O’Connor, as the president got the job of reporting the decision to Ashworth. Ashworth wasn’t receptive, sending the council back to the drawing board. Samantha offered another proposal.

How did I let myself get roped into this? I wondered. Actually I knew. O’Connor had tried to get school funds to pay for the flyers the student council was supposed to put out. We could have used someone’s home printer or gotten a shop to do it, but no one wanted to cough up the money to pay for it. We all thought it was a school problem, and, therefore, the school should pay. Of course, Principal Ashworth objected. His rational was the school was short on funds, which may or may not have been true. Personally, I thought it was because he didn’t want to publicize that the school had a problem, and our flyers would invariably get out in the public. O’Connor had tried his best to convince him, and when that failed I got elected because I had the most convincing argument.

Now I was standing across the counter from Ms. Farrow. “Let me understand this, Miss Pederson. You want to talk to Dr. Ashworth about the pranks. Are you admitting to doing them?”

I didn’t say anything. I think she read my face and saw the anger there. Yes, I was responsible for some of the better shenanigans, but I wasn’t about to admit to them. I was angry because of the tendency to blame me for just about anything unfortunate that happened that year, and I still wondered if Ingrid Hoffman hadn’t started a rumor or suggested I was a trouble maker.

Ms. Farrow seemed to be determined to get rid of me. “Don’t you have a class?”

“I have study hall this period.” I was tempted to add, “If you’d stop stalling me, I could get this over with and still have time left to study.”

She harrumphed. “I’ll let him know you’re here. Have a seat.”

“I’ll stand, thank you. Tell him I have a solution to the practical jokes.”

She glared at me before walking to her desk and keying the intercom. “Miss Pederson to see you, sir. She claims to have an answer for the pranks.”

There was a pause. Then I heard Ashworth’s voice in the tinny tone of the ancient intercom. He sounded weary and resigned. “Send her in, but she’d better not be wasting my time.”

He didn’t bother to get up when I came through the door. “What do you have to say, Miss Pederson? And please make it brief.”

I got straight to the point. “As you know, the practical jokes have become increasingly frequent recently. In talking to other students I’m hearing that your inept detective is the main cause. Most everyone I know calls him Sheerluck Jones and says that the pranksters are competing by challenging him with their tricks …”

Ashworth exploded. “What? Who said I had a detective?” His face was bright red. He started to rise up in his chair but stopped.

“As I said, he’s inept. He’s obviously not a real cusodian, and his questions are inappropriate for a cusodian. He has to be authorized to be in the building, so you have to know he’s here and not legitimate. Ergo, you must have hired him. No one else would be interested in finding out who the jokers are and have the authority to get him in here. Besides, his secretary told us he is working for you.”

“She what?” He looked apoplectic. I began to be concerned he would have a heart attack.

“Sir, the solution is simple. Get rid of him. It’ll stop the competition. I won’t guarantee it will stop all the tricks, but it should keep them from getting out of hand and getting somebody hurt.”

I almost couldn’t believe it. I swear I could see the light go on. He actually relaxed. He was silent for a moment. Then he smiled at me. I think that scared me more than being taken to the police station. “Thank you, Miss Pederson. I’ll have to seriously consider your advice.”

“Yes sir.” I looked at my watch. “I should get back to study hall now.”

“You do that.”

I headed out the door, wondering if he was pleased or predatory.

––– # –––

As soon as I walked into the library, I was surrounded. “How’d it go?” “Did he buy it?” “Did we get the money for the flyers?”

Ms. Olsen was giving us dirty looks, so I shushed everyone and whispered, “Keep it down. I’ll tell you about, but let’s move into the auditorium first.”

When we arrived, I gave a detailed briefing of what had happened. I finished with, “I don’t know how to read Principal Ashworth, but what I suggested seemed to make him happy. I suspect he was tired of throwing money away on Sheerluck.”

O’Connor asked, “When do you think we’ll know something?”

“I suspect before the end of the day.”

Right then the class bell rang and we all hurried to our next class.

––– # –––

When I came out English class at the end of the day, Principal Ashworth was waiting for me. “Miss Pederson, could I speak to you privately?”

My stomach did a flip-flop.

Samantha – Council Meeting

The prank at the football game had been a tremendous success. It even made the TV news. Samantha had set high expectations, and she had unintentionally recruited a team for more mischief. It didn’t take them long to find out that publishing a website was out of their league, but wiring a cheap CB radio into the school public address was easy. To keep it unexpected but frequent they tuned it to channel 19, at the time one of the most popular. The first transmission was received during second period, and others occurred sporadically during the rest of the day. By the time the public address repairman showed, it was after lunch and even the pranksters were tired of the interruptions.

Other pranks included coloring the shrubbery with a water soluble red paint, spraying the corridors with fake spider webs, putting vinegar in the lunchroom drink dispenser, and other harmless monkeyshines. The police weren’t interested since no one was being hurt, but Principal Ashworth hired a private detective to find the culprits. He turned out to be as ineffective as Inspector Clouseau or Sherloque Tanney.

Here’s what Samantha has to say about it.

Keeping ahead of the detective, Sheerluck Jones, became a game in itself. Unfortunately, other people joined the game and started playing pranks on their own. I could see what was coming, so I got together with Dwayne and Renee to decide what to do about it.

We sat down together in the Exchange snack bar after school. I went right to the heart of the matter. “I think it’s time to get out of the prank business.”

I had expected a “What? Why?” from either Dwayne or Renee, but they both nodded their heads. Dwayne spoke first. “This could get nasty in a hurry. Do you think a police investigation would lead to us?”

I answered, “I don’t know, but it would be best if we can head off a probe. What can we do to put a lid on this prank epidemic we started?”

Renee laughed. “I’m not so sure we started it. Sheerluck’s bumbling is what made it fun and got others involved … Do either of you know who started that nickname?”

Dwayne surprised us with an answer. “Locally, no, but it came from a derogatory name applied to a DC comic character … Getting back to the issue at hand, this is a student issue and needs to be handled by the Student Council. Someone who is obviously alert to the problems this can cause needs to bring it up at the next meeting. I’m already on the council so it should be one of you. I can back you up when the discussion gets underway.”

I glanced at Renee who was looking at her hands. I said, “I started this whole thing, so I guess it’s my responsibility.” Renee looked relieved. “I have one problem … I don’t lie. If they ask me what I know about what’s happening, well, I’m not sure how to address that.” Renee blanched.

Dwayne said, “I agree it should be you. You’ll have to take charge and steer the conversation – aggressively. Make sure it never gets around to what you know about it. Better yet, start off with what you know about the other pranksters but don’t tie it to anything we’ve done.”

I thought about that for a few seconds. “Maybe I could compare what might happen to one of our weaker attempts, say painting the shrubs. That way there wouldn’t be any obvious holes.”

Dwayne had an additional suggestion. “You probably ought to practice what you’re going to say. Renee and I could sit in and offer suggestions.”

It’s never that easy.

––– # –––

From what I understood the Student Council meetings were rarely attended by anyone but the council. When I walked in to the room, people were already standing along the walls. Bill Compton had a seat in the front row. When I walked by he stood up. “Looking for a seat, Sam? You can have mine.”

“Thanks, but …”

“No buts, I can stand.”

All I could say was, “Thanks.”

He walked away and I took the seat.

The sergeant-at-arms rapped the gavel and called the meeting to order. He introduced the council president, Walter O’Connor, and sat down.

O’Connor looked over the room. “Wow, what brings all of you here?”

There were several titters, but Bill spoke up, “We’ve heard that something important is going to be discussed, and the council was likely to blow it off.”

O’Connor started to say something that began with an indignant “How …?” and then stopped. He changed directions. “Does anyone here know what this important subject is?” He looked around the room. No hands went up. He looked at the members of the council. Dwayne frowned and looked at me, but no one else responded. Then, as O’Connor started to say something, I realized this was my turn staring me in the face. I rose to my feet. “I know what it is.”

“Your name and class for the record, please.” O’Connor knew me, but this was supposed to be a formal meeting.

“Samantha Pederson, Senior.”

“And what is this important topic?”

“The pranks that are going on at the school.” I stood taller. “We’re heading for real trouble.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the pranks are getting more dangerous. I mean hiding all the toilet paper in the girls’ locker room was annoying but no one got hurt by it. Someone deliberately blocked the doors to the gym the other day. Glenn Reiser and Andy Carpenter both hit he doors so hard when they raced out of the gym that they were woozy and had to be helped to their feet. Luckily neither was seriously injured, but they could have been.”

“They shouldn’t have been running,” O’Connor said, dismissing the problem.

“I’m not arguing that, but the situation was dangerous. Someone could have been hurt. That’s what is important. Whoever blocked the door would have been more at fault than Glenn or Andy. Those doors have panic bars for a reason – so no one gets crushed if a crowd tries to get through them in a panic.”

“So what are we supposed to do about this problem?” O’Connor was still being dismissive.

“You guys are the council, figure it out, but I would suggest starting by letting the student body know that enough is enough, that if somebody is injured in one of these pranks, the prankster will be held responsible.”

O’Connor stood there open mouthed. I can still remember how funny he looked. Fortunately, Dwayne came to the rescue. “Walt, why don’t we get a consensus of the students in the room and see how important this is to them? That way we’ll know how to proceed.”

It was a totally new idea since there had never been a group this large at a council meeting. O’Connor jumped on it. Before the meeting was over, the council had agreed to take action to shut down the pranks. They recruited a committee from the students in the room to create posters urging a stop to the shenanigans, and another group to urge Principal Ashworth to fire his inept PI, and finally, as the council’s most outspoken member, O’Connor took on the task of putting together a short announcement on the public address.

Naturally, Ashworth was the one who balked.

Samantha – Co-conspirators

For those of you who are just joining this blog, it’s a character study of the protagonist, Samantha Pederson, for my next book, Antimatter (working title). She tells about her life starting just before she turns 16 and follows the events that shape her personality up till her current involvement in a government organization that researches technical development for potential threats to our security. In the previous episode Samantha had pulled off an elaborate prank on Principal Ashworth, but as careful as she had been about hiding her involvement, someone had called her on it.

My mind screamed, No way anyone could know what I did. Forcing a what-are-you-talking-about expression, I turned on the bench to face my accuser. “Dwayne!” I was dumbfounded. I sat there with my mouth open.

Dwayne filled the silence. “Hey, your secret’s safe with me.” He glanced at Renee. I couldn’t help myself, I looked at her too.

A puzzled expression on her face, Renee asked, “What are you looking at me for? I don’t even know what you’re talking about. What secret?”

Renee wasn’t slow, and I could see the realization dawning on her face. “You mean you …? You set off that awful noise. But … but how?”

We all scanned the bleachers around us. No one was near enough to hear us. It was one of those years for the team, so bad the attendance was always low. I returned my gaze to Renee. I wasn’t about to acknowledge what I did, even by acquiescence unless I had her word she wouldn’t tell.

Renee realized what I was looking for. “I won’t tell anyone either.”

I glanced at Dwayne. He smiled and gave a single nod, confirming he wouldn’t say anything.

First I had to know. “How did you conclude I was involved?”

He shrugged. “From what little I know of you, you’re not the type to let someone wrong you and get away with it, and it was pretty clear you thought Ashworth was deliberately after you. I have to agree with you.”

“Wait. You didn’t actually know I had something to do with this? So you tricked me into admitting …” My anger flared. If he hadn’t been out of reach, I don’t know what I would have done.

It must have shown. He shrunk back. “I had to know. I want in on it.”

I had started to get up, but that stopped me. “You want in on it?”

He nodded. “As long as no one actually gets hurt. It looks like fun, and he’s pissed off enough people with the way he runs the school. He needs some retaliation.”

I relaxed and so did Dwayne. I regarded Renee. “What about you? I don’t want to get you in trouble.”

“I’m in. After all, we went to jail together.”

Dwayne’s eyebrows rose. The police incident wasn’t common knowledge. Right then it occurred to me that our run in with the police might be why Ashworth was down on me. I had to say something to Dwayne. “It wasn’t anything. I played a prank on a couple of cops. They took us to jail to scare us.”

“And it worked,” Renee added with a rueful smile. “I’ve never been so scared.”

Dwayne stepped down to our bleacher. “Getting back on the subject, how did you pull this off today?”

It took me all of ten minutes to outline what I had done. Dwayne commented, “You realize this may be your crowning achievement. It’s going to be awfully hard for us to top it.” Something about that statement irritated me, but I couldn’t tell what at the time.

The game should have been called at half-time. Our team was so far behind, the other team could have gone home and we still wouldn’t have caught up by the end of the game. Even the most loyal fans were streaming out of the stadium. Heck, Ashworth had gone silent.

Dwayne stood up. “This is ridiculous. What say we go to Baskin-Robbins and drown our sorrows … while we plan our campaign?”

I nodded and climbed to my feet. At the same time I felt some resentment. Dwayne was taking over my revenge effort. I didn’t want to discourage him, but I wanted to make sure he knew I was in charge.

––– # –––

Baskin-Robbins was filled when we got there, so we had to stand in line. By the time we had gotten our ice cream, a table had cleared out, so Renee and I grabbed it and left Dwayne to pay for our orders. Renee took a window seat and I took the outside seat opposite her to see what Dwayne would do. He took the window seat next to me.

As he sat, he asked, “Do you think we can talk here?”

I scanned the crowd. “We should be okay … as long as we’re discrete.”

“Any idea what the next stunt should be?” Was he taking over again?

Personally I wanted to bask in the glory of having succeeded on my first attempt, but that wouldn’t be taking command. Still I said, “I’m open to suggestions.”

Dwayne responded immediately. “I’m thinking in terms of hacking into the school website and posting unflattering pictures of Ashworth.”

“Isn’t that illegal?” Renee wanted to know.

I nodded. “‘Fraid so … however, we could always start a new website and post unflattering stuff there. I bet we could get a domain name that people would check out because it looks so much like the school’s.”

“But they could always trace the posts back to us,” Dwayne objected.

“Not if we signed Ashworth up from a school computer for an obscure email account and use that account to sign up for a free website.” I was pretty sure that would work.

Renee countered, “Don’t the internet service providers have rules about that sort of thing?”

“How would they know?” I asked.

She looked skeptical. “I don’t know, but I bet they would. Somehow I think all that would be asking for trouble.”

I considered for a second. “I tell you what, Renee. Why don’t you research the ramifications? I want to cause Ashworth discomfort, not get him in legal trouble.”

She still looked doubtful. “Okay, I’ll do that, but I’ll bet it won’t work.”

I glanced at Dwayne. I had managed to take control of the group, and he didn’t seem to mind. I didn’t realize at the time I had driven a wedge between us.

Samantha – The Joke

The scare she had gotten, along with her counselor’s questions, had Samantha thinking about backing out of her plan to play practical jokes on Ashworth. Was it worth the risk? Did he really deserve it? On the other hand would it do him any harm? She finally decided to go ahead with the plan but to be ready to pull out at the slightest hint she might be caught.

Saturday morning I got up early. I had already told everyone I was going for a fifteen mile run and I was going to get an early start. Donning my running gear, I made my way down stairs as quietly as I could. Not that I was being secretive – well, maybe a little, but I didn’t want to wake anyone. I stopped in the garage to work on the clock radio. It was a quick operation. To verify that the alarm would go off when it was supposed to, I tuned to a local country station and set the alarm for two minutes. That worked, so I set the alarm for when I knew Principal Ashworth would be at the microphone. Checking that the clock was set to the correct time, I pulled the radio’s plug and waited impatiently for five minutes before plugging it back in. The radio’s time matched my watch to the second.

With the radio unplugged again, I clipped the speaker and buzzer leads and taped over the display with duct tape so the light wouldn’t give it away. Finally, I slid the radio and my phone into my already empty back pack and headed for the front door.

I got a shock when I heard Mom coming down the stairs. She said, “Have a good run. I’ll fix you breakfast when you get home. When will that be?”

I swallowed hard to get rid of the shakiness in my voice. “It’s fifteen miles, and I’ll be taking it easy. Probably around two hours. I’ll call if I’m going to be later than that.”

“Okay, have fun, dear.”

“See you when I get back.” I waved as I went out the door.

The run to school was easy. As usual the back gate to the football field was open. I took a lap around the track, primarily to see if anyone else was there. I didn’t expect to see anyone at this hour, but I wanted to be sure. It was all clear, so I made my way around to the back of the stands and entered the bleachers through a tunnel. I jogged up the stairs to the broadcast booth.

Doing some simple stretching as cover, I made another check for possible observers. This check was critical, and I was as thorough as I could be. I still saw no one. Taking a last look, I unlocked the booth and slipped inside.

It only took a few minutes to set the radio up. I connected it to the amplifier with the audio cord I had attached to the speaker terminals on the circuit board, turned off the mute switch for the input channel I was using, and adjusted the volume slide to match the slide for the microphone. Finally, since the radio would only buzz if it was on battery power, I plugged it into the socket behind the amplifier.

Crawling out from under the announcer’s counter, I heard a voice. A chill ran down my back, freezing me in place. The sound was coming from the field. I eased up until I could see the track out the window. A couple, obviously not high school students, was trotting around the track, jabbering away at each other as they ran.

When they started their second lap, I knew I had a problem. How long would they stay around? Would someone else come before they left? I didn’t recognize either of them, so they probably wouldn’t recognize me. Deciding I couldn’t afford to wait, I slipped out of the booth and locked it. When the runners had their backs to the tunnel, I flipped my hood up and trotted down the stairs, keeping a wary eye on them.

I ducked into the tunnel, and the stands gave me cover all the way to the south end of the stadium. I waited for the couple to pass the end of the stands on their next lap. Then I slipped around to the front. They weren’t looking back, so I ran for all I was worth onto the field and out the back gate, keeping the back of my hood toward them. I was three blocks away before I could glance back and relax.

––– # –––

The kickoff for the football game was at 2:05 PM, but I was there half an hour early to be sure I could see Principal Ashworth when he came out of the booth. Renee came in just before the game started, and when I waved at her, she joined me. “I didn’t know you were a football fan,” she said as she sat down beside me.

“Every once in a while I like to try new things.” That was true, even if it didn’t really address what she had said.

The game was a disaster from the start. Our team got the ball first. Bill Compton was sharp as the quarterback, but the receivers dropped his passes and the runners seemed to mostly hit brick walls. They had only made twenty yards before they had to punt, and fifteen of those were from a penalty.

Mike Clemens, the punter, got off a terrific kick, and Lamar Stevens downed the ball at the two yard line. Then all hell broke loose. Principal Ashworth was just celebrating the play, when the radio alarm went off. A country song blared from the speakers. It was so loud it distorted into something incomprehensible, and people were slapping their hands over their ears.

Apparently Principal Ashworth didn’t know about the mute switches on the amplifier because the music dropped to a still-distorted but tolerable level and everyone could hear him swearing. He turned out to know some pretty colorful phrases to use when he was angry. Parents who had been holding their own ears started holding their children’s ears.

With a final burst of profanity the noise abruptly cut off, all of it. A little later the sound system came back on, and a subdued Principal Ashworth spoke. “Ladies and gentlemen, I must apologize for what happened, especially my outburst. It was unprofessional and I sincerely apologize. Someone rigged a radio into the sound system and set it off with a timer. We’ll find out who is responsible for this prank and make sure they are duly reprimanded. … Officials, you may resume the game.”

A voice from behind me said, “Sam, you’ll have to tell me how you did that.” My heart stopped.

Samantha – Counseling

Samantha was in the broadcast booth to check out the layout so she could hook a clock radio into the field sound system, when someone passing by noticed the door was unlocked. The door was directly opposite the window that looked onto the field, and she was under the counter beneath the window, checking out the amplifier.

––– # –––

Knowing I was about to be exposed, I watched in horror as the door knob turned. I almost didn’t hear the other voice my heart was beating so loudly. “I wouldn’t worry about it. Whoever’s working in there has a key.”

The knob stopped. The door was still closed. I held my breath. A person in here on legitimate business would respond to what was going on. I lowered my voice as much as I could. “Hey, thanks for the concern. I’ll be a while longer.” I prayed they didn’t hear the tremor in my voice or recognize it.

The first voice said, “Sorry to disturb you.”

“No problem.” I waited, counting the seconds. Finally I heard them moving off.

Relief swept over me, and I slumped against the wall. I sat there for the longest time, waiting for the shakes to subside. I wondered if I was really cut out for this. If I was going to do this, I couldn’t put it off. The game next Saturday was the last home game of the season, and the team wouldn’t be in the playoffs. This would be my last chance.

I kept thinking I needed a co-conspirator, someone to watch out for me. However, I was willing to take responsibility for my own actions, but I couldn’t be responsible for getting someone else in trouble. … Well, maybe Ingrid Hoffman, but that was another matter entirely.

Finally my shaking subsided enough that I was willing to get up. I was finished with this reconnaissance. I eased the door open a crack and looked out. When I didn’t see anybody I opened it far enough that I could look around. I didn’t hear anyone or see anyone. I slipped out and closed the door. Making sure one more time that no one could see me, I locked the door and pocketed the key.

Then I heard someone coming up one of the tunnels. I moved to the opposite stairs and headed down to that tunnel. I managed to reach it and duck inside before the other person came out. I suddenly grasped the disadvantage of being a red-head and trying to be sneaky.

All the way home I questioned my resolution to carry out this prank. I had expected it to be a rush, but all I had felt while almost being found out was fright. I wished desperately that I had someone I could talk to about it. If Brian were still alive … No, I wasn’t going to go there. It had to be me and me alone … or did it?

Mom was seeing a grief counselor, and it seemed to be working. They’d offered me counseling too, but I had wanted to hurt then. Now I didn’t. Maybe a counselor could tell me if pranks were my way of dealing with the hurt that was still there. I doubted they would condone the pranks, but maybe there was something else I should be doing.

––– # –––

I was able to see my counselor at her office on Thursday. Olivia, a strikingly pretty, short brunet, appeared to be young, somewhere in her twenties I guessed. She wore a frilly white blouse and a black skirt short enough to have distracted a man as she sat with her legs crossed. I had other things on my mind. She listened to me whine about Brian’s death. Then she asked me, “So what are you doing about it?”

I thought about her question for a moment. What was I doing about my grief? I didn’t know. Maybe simply hoping it would fade away with time. “As far as I know I haven’t done anything.”

She templed her fingers in front of her face, touching her lips with her finger tips. “The responses to loss differ for everyone because there is no such thing as a typical loss. Each individual grieves in their own way just as they live their own lives distinctly. We speak of five stages of grief, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, but how we deal with each stage is intensely personal. Not everyone goes through them the same way nor do they necessarily go through all of them. There is no universal right way. From what you’ve said to me, I’d say you have worked your way through your version of denial and anger, but you seem to have skipped bargaining and gone directly to depression. There is nothing wrong with that. That’s just your unique way of dealing with grief.”

I hesitated. It was time to get to the point. I wasn’t sure I wanted to trust someone else with what I was preparing to do, but I was talking to her now to get this out of my system. Should I be plotting out these devious pranks? Would they do me any good in relieving my grief? I couldn’t put it off; I had to tell her what I had in mind. I spilled everything, including nearly being caught in the booth.

“And you want me to tell you if you’re doing the right thing?” She paused. “You realize I can’t do that. Let me ask you this, do you believe you’ll get some kind of satisfaction out of pulling of outrageous pranks and getting away with it?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Right now I resent the fact that Ashworth targeted me, and I want to get even.”

She frowned a little as if she were considering what I said. “As a general rule getting even is rarely effective. On the other hand, if you were doing it for fun, it might relieve some of your stress.”

“Okay, let’s say I’m doing it for fun. What about that?” I pressed for a commitment from her. Should I do it or not?

She peered at me for a few seconds before answering. “Look, I can’t solve your problem for you. The best I can do is tell you what I think. You have to decide what to do.”

“But you said it might relieve my stress.”

“It might.”

“So what would you do?” I expected another question.

She surprised me. Instead of answering with something about making my own decision, she answered my question. “I’d go for it – as long as nobody would get hurt.”

“But I want to hurt Ashworth. He hurt me.” I could feel my anger rising.

“So we’re back to that. Will you really gain anything from hurting Principal Ashworth?”

“I don’t know.”

“I’ll tell you what, go ahead with your prank and tell me next week how it felt.” She walked to the door to let me out. “I’ll see you next Thursday.”

I didn’t feel better as I walked out.