“Stephen. Have a seat.”

Dr. Cann lowers into a chair and warily regards the assistant principal. “What do you need, Jack?” Being summoned to a private meeting with Mr. Lemaire fills students and teachers alike with dread.

Despite half a decade of working together, the men are not so friendly; early into his tenure at Pearville, at an administrative meet-and-greet over styrofoam plates and an industrial cheese ball, Lemaire offhandedly mentioned that he learns about current events via television news—even worse, local TV news. In proper academic fashion, Dr. Cann patiently explained why this is a bad idea. Television news is a dying medium. It's all fear mongering. There are no ethics. Points made with practiced hand gestures while drinking cheap wine from a plastic cup. Lemaire had laughed at him. “Listen, man,” he had said, “I'm pressed for time. Accuracy is luxury. I just don't wanna sound dumb when someone brings up the news.” Half a breath before Dr. Cann delved into a monologue about intellectual laziness, he remembered that this simpleton was his supervisor.

Dr. Cann wishes for wine now.

Lemaire sips coffee, as usual, out of that hideous purple souvenir mug, which doesn't even look food safe; purple paint probably leaches lead into his hot coffee all day, which explains, well, nearly everything. Lemaire wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “Bet you're wondering why I called this meeting, huh?”

“I was pretty surprised to see it on my calendar, sure.” Students have discussions with Lemaire. Adults have meetings. Same thing.

“It's come to my attention that you don't always enforce school rules as spelled out in the handbook.”

“Oh no?” Dr. Cann tries to place his photocopy of the Pearville High School Handbook. Is it at home? No, probably in a classroom closet. He may have thrown it away, actually, the last time he moved apartments, along with phone books and health insurance packets and tax returns.

“Tell me. Do you allow cell phones in your classroom?”

“Of course not. That's against the rules. Per the handbook.”

“Don't lie to me, Stephen. Our teachers must enforce the rules.”

“In the handbook.”

“The school rules.”

“Rules. Got it.”

A green vein stretches from the bridge of Lemaire's nose to his hairline. “Are you trying to prove something here, Stephen? Something about how you're above the rest of us and not subject to the same rules?”

Dr. Cann hates the way Lemaire pronounces his name, with a condescending emphasis on the first syllable. STEphen. He used to always correct him—It's Doctor Cann, actually—until it became clear that corrections antagonize simple authoritarians. “The word 'subject' is pretty heady. It almost has feudal connotations.”

“Jesus fucking christ.”

“Is swearing allowed in the handbook?”

“Do you know about this box?” From the edge of his desk, Lemaire retrieves a shoebox.

“This empty box?”

“Well, it's empty because it's Friday. But every day after school, it's full of cell phones. To the brim. They're totally addicted.”

“Of course they are. They're kids. Look, I'm as concerned about our students as you are but phones aren't the problem. Our culture is the problem. We send mixed messages about what's important, and we force competition where it doesn't belong, and we reward aggression and gossip. What happened to the Brady girl, for instance, didn't happen because of phones.”

“Funny you bring her up.”

“Ah Christ.” Dr. Cann has no choice but to wait this conversation out. It's Friday. People get fired on Fridays. Even someone from academia knows that.

“You've been here five years, Stephen.”

“Good counting, Jack.”

“And you've been well-liked during that time, too. That's why I hate having to do the thing I'm about to do.”

Back in his classroom, Dr. Cann gathers a box of belongings under one arm. When the police confiscated the boys' phones, they found group te­xts and contacted the school with a question: Who is Dr. Cann? Turns out they thought Ethan had referred to a medical doctor. Leave it to law enforcement to not equate teaching with a doctorate.

Walking to his car feels like walking to a funeral. Crisp wind and colorful trees usher in the cold. As he backs out of his designated parking spot, Dr. Cann realizes this is the first time in recent memory he is consciously pulling out of this lot. The drive to school and back is usually a blur. He could do it in his sleep. Hadn't he read somewhere that when humans commit something to habit, they go about the motions subconsciously? They aren't able to tell you, for instance, how they get into the elevator, how they drive to work, how they sit down at their desks. Yet they do all these things, nearly every day, on autopilot. 


chapter fifty-three