High school can be murder.
Biology teacher Andy Farmer desperately wished his friend Chuck Cleveland was lisping over the phone on that fateful morning, but when he arrived at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings High to find the building wrapped in crime scene tape, he feared the worst. With Chuck missing and the principal dead–stabbed with a scalpel meant for rendering biology lab frogs brain dead–Andy now agonizes over possible accessory charges as he plays coy with Detective Robert French, all the while encouraging Chuck to own up for what he has done … when he is able to talk to his elusive friend. It’s enough Andy has to deal with his bum hip, fading hearing, and threats to force him into retirement from his superiors, he doesn’t want to worry about it in prison.
This is Pithed, a story of revenge, bureaucracy, and a dog named Steely Dan.
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Excerpt (c) Kathryn Lively
The voice on the other end was deep and terse.
“I did it, Andy.”
“Wha?” I yawned into the phone. My eyes were slit open just enough to see the alarm clock on my side of the bed announce in bright red that it was 4:12 in the morning – a good eighteen minutes before I normally wakened on a school day. Despite the momentary bout of disorientation, I immediately recognized my fellow teacher Chuck Cleveland as the caller. Chuck was the only other person I knew, besides me, who would be alert so early.
Of course, I was not completely alert yet. I thought I still had eighteen minutes of sleep left.
“Andy? You there?”
“Yeah.” An elbow jabbed me in the ribs. My wife Louise shifted restlessly on her side of the mattress, sliding yet another inch of bed sheet around her body and leaving my feet exposed. Lou is also a teacher, but hardly an early riser. She relishes every bit of sleep she is allowed; any noise on my part is regarded as spite.
I bent toward my night table, as far out of her earshot as I could go without getting out of bed. “Chuck, I don’t know what you did,” I hissed into the phone, “but can’t it wait until we get to work and you can explain it to me then?”
“I’m not coming to work.” Chuck sounded like he had been crying. I had half a mind to ask, but stayed quiet. The less words coming from my end, the better for my rib cage. Instead I listened as a roaring exhale rippled through the receiver.
“He pissed me off, Andy,” Chuck said finally. “He pissed me off for the last time, so I pithed him.”
“What? Are you lisping?” I whispered hoarsely. Another jab, this time to the hip, the one I had replaced. Pain shot all the way to my toes. I rolled out of bed and carried the phone into the bathroom, shutting the door on the cord that dragged behind me. “Say that again?”
A heavy sigh ruptured on the other end. Figuring I was about to be treated to a lengthy explanation of a bar fight gone bad, I took a seat on the john and set the phone on my lap. The yellow glow of an outside lamppost provided the only light in the cramped area, and through the frosted glass of the bathroom window it sparkled and appeared to spread with every movement of my eyes.
“Chuck?” I whispered cautiously. “Are you in jail? Is that why you’re calling?” Chuck, while an effective and dedicated biology teacher, could be moody at times. His darker moods tended to give way to minor altercations, which had increased in number when his wife died two years ago. “Do I need to come bail you out for something?”
“I’m not going to jail,” he said quickly. I sensed the mood shift from scared to angry. In the stifling dark of the bathroom I felt my heart leap simultaneously with the sound of Lou shifting in our bed. Could she hear Chuck blaring from the receiver? He certainly sounded loud. Of course, I was listening with my good ear and everything sounded amplified.
“You hear me, Andy? I’m not going to jail for this. That bastard’s not worth the time.”
“Okay.” That helped little. So far all I had was that somebody had pissed off my colleague, who sought revenge by pissing him off in return. The pisser—is that the proper term?—now the pissed, was a bastard not worth a jail sentence. I’m not all too familiar with Chuck’s private life, so I could only pinpoint the possible work-related bastards. Given that we are talking about the public school system, I knew it was not a short list.
“Chuck, tell you what,” I began again, hoping he was not drunk. Since his wife Enid’s death he had been known to tip the bottle. “Why don’t you let me get dressed and I’ll meet you at the Dunkin’ Donuts by the school? They’re open early, so we can have some coffee and talk before the first bell—”
“Andy, I’m not coming to work,” Chuck seethed. I pictured him stalking the confines of his minuscule one-bedroom apartment as he talked, swatting knickknacks and tipping over end tables in his wake, he sounded that angry.
“Why? Are you sick? Are you in trouble? Guy, you’re going to have get specific if you want my help!”
“You’ll know soon enough when you get to school.” A long pause followed. I’m ashamed to admit I was actually listening for a suicidal gunshot; my thumb brushed the plunger, just in case I needed to call 911. Relief washed over me when he spoke again without being prompted.
“Look,” he said. “Just know that what I did was in the heat of the moment. He just pushed me over the edge, you know? It’s enough that my wife dies and I got bills coming out my ass…oh, man.
“I—I shouldn’t have called,” he added. “They’ll probably check up on the phone, and I’ll just be giving you and Lou more trouble than you need. Look, whatever happens, if anyone asks, just say you don’t know where I am, okay?”
Technically, it was true. How could I really be sure Chuck was at home? Given this current mindset, he could be calling from a seedy motel off I-95 in Brunswick.
“Chuck,” I pressed. “What did you do? And why would you think you’d be giving me any trouble? Who is this guy who pissed you off?”
My answer was the sound of Chuck disconnecting from his end. I was left sitting in the dark on my toilet, wondering who they were and why they would be so interested in tracing Chuck’s phone to track this early morning conversation which made absolutely no sense.