One call and three minutes later I'm dismissed. The director’s assistant brings coffee, then takes me with her. To be honest I don’t mind. I’m more than happy to leave it all behind me, the long string of inconvenient platitudes, Mom, Director Nuttley, and their budding romance. I shudder.
The assistant turns out to be a long, slender woman wearing a pink sweater above a black skirt. She radiates competence. She has a friendly face, framed by loose shoulder-length bangs, the rest of her blonde hair tied up in a high ponytail. Small golden earrings shine through her loose bangs. Her stiletto heels make her tower over me. The wrinkles near the corners of her eyes tell me she laughs a lot. She could be in her late thirties, early forties. She's one of those people whose age is hard to guess, and I'm bad at guessing ages anyway. With her looks, she could easily model for a ‘perfect-housewife-visits-the-gym-everyday-look-at-her-perfect-hair-shampoo’ ad. Or she could be an assistant at some small-town high school, I suppose. Whatever her age, she's attractive, in a vibrant, almost animalistic way.
"Hello. I eh…" I start.
The woman looks down on me, literally, and frowns. Her cold grey eyes have little flecks around the pupil, which seem to move as she studies me. The wrinkles deepen, perhaps not from laughing then. Had she been wearing a sweater with a Nuttley's High logo, holding a stopwatch, and looking disapprovingly at me, she would have been the female sports coach. I get that a lot from sports coaches. The neon-pink false nails make the prospect unlikely though.
Then her eyes light up, and she grabs my hand and starts pumping it. "I’m Cathy McKinnon," she says. "No husband, no kids, two jobs, one boyfriend. And right now out of coffee.” The frowning wrinkles have become laughing wrinkles again, thank god. She stops pumping my hand and asks, “Coffee?"
I nod. I picture her as a soccer mom. A Honda Stream, six screaming kids in the back. Which fits. Replace the Stream with a Civic, and the kids with a two-piece suit, and she would be selling insurances. It's strange, but I have the feeling she's seen it all, done it all. Except for the kids-thing.
Cathy McKinnon leads me to a door that says ‘staff only’, and lets us into the small meeting room. She must be staff because I'm most definitely not. Inside the room, a bunch of steel-frame chairs, with plastic seats in muted earth colors, surround two laminate tables. Cold tube lighting and a few motivational posters tell me there’s little difference between life in, and in front of the classroom. In the small kitchenette next to the entrance a dishwasher whirls and splutters.
“Yeah, I thought you were the coffee type. Espresso? You know it’s bad for you, don’t you?”
So are bullets. I shrug. “Black. No sugar, no milk, thank you.”
“Going hardcore…” She nods and messes around with the coffee machine. I secretly admire her heels. Some women can just pull it off. With those heels, a slinky dress, lots of makeup, and lots of photoshopping, Miss McKinnon could be the next Instagram sensation. What do I know? This school thing might just be her moonlighting.
McKinnon takes her coffee with a little cream, and we sit. She makes a face after she took her first sip. “It’s pretty bad, isn’t it?”
I nod and we both laugh. It isn’t that bad, or perhaps I should say I've had worse. But yeah, I understand why she added the milk. I’m halfway through my coffee when she brings up the guns.
“I hope you brought your guns. Tell me that you did!” Cathy McKinnon says.
I stare at the assistant / insurance seller / soccer mom / Instagram model. She either knows things she shouldn't, or I’m missing something. I carefully put my cup down and push my chair back. Just a little and just in case. “My eh… my guns?”
“Of course.” Perhaps something in the coffee? Suspiciously I stare at my half-empty cup.
She reddens a little and laughs. “Well, not to school, of course. That would be somewhat... inconvenient.”
I nod in agreement. Yeah, I guess it would.
“We do have our share of crazies out here, you know,” she explains. “People bring all sorts of stuff to the campus. At least they try to, even guns, licensed or not. Which are obviously not allowed here. Someone tried to bring a goat once, can you believe that? A goat!”
I'm a little puzzled how a goat could be worse than a gun, but I let it slide. People are idiots, guns are dangerous, and sometimes the two meet each other. Still, it’s never good to be found out this early in the game. That leads to complications, and complications often result in good people getting hurt. The whole idea is to hurt the bad ones, and leave the good people in peace.
"There’s this metal detector and a rent-a-cop at the gate,” I point out, trying to figure out her spiel.
Cathy McKinnon looks at me, a little puzzled herself. Somehow I have the feeling she is following a different script.
“The guard,” I clarify.
“Oh! John! Good guy but, well, you know.” From the way she pronounces the guard’s name, she can’t be that impressed. She shrugs, then smiles. “I heard you were a pretty good shot. That demo you gave in Arlington… wow!”
Then it clicks. Arlington. The video that doesn't want to go away. Mom’s still pissed about that one.
“Are you really two-handed?” Cathy McKinnon asks.
I put down the mug and raise both hands. Yep, I still have both hands, though I know that's not how she meant it. I'm not fully ambidextrous but close enough, and I did show off that day. I shrug. “Last time I checked, I guess. I’m a little better left-handed. I - well" - I hesitate - “Isn’t it a bit weird to talk about guns? As an introduction?”
She looks sheepish, but only for a moment. “It is, isn’t it? But I did read your file and that got me thinking. You see, I’m a member of the Iron Sights Rifle Club, and, well, it would be an honor to have you as a member.” She blushes, then quickly adds, “Or even as a guest! You know, I bought a Five-Seven after watching that video. I should have bought two, but" - she shrugs - "it was an impulse buy. An expensive one, but what you did looked so cool!”
Cool? Mom doesn't think so. She can magic things away, but somehow that recording found a dark corner on the internet to hide in, only to do a peek-a-boo at the most inconvenient of times. It’s one of the reasons I dropped out of shooting competitions: everything goes online these days, and Mom doesn't like to leave too much of a trail.
So... Cathy McKinnon knows about Arlington, and read my 'file'. Unless Nuttley's High has its own FBI subsidiary there should not be a ‘file’ at all. Perhaps Mom made something up? She could have, but I’m not entirely sure she would. Substitute teachers typically don’t brag about their daughters' prowess on the shooting range. It’s an unusual hobby, and I think rightfully frowned upon, or at least treated with care. I silently swear. It would have been nice for once to know what parts she made up this time, on top of the usual nonsense. Just for once.
My lack of enthusiasm might have caused the worried frown on McKinnon's face. “Oh, you still shoot, don’t you? You did bring them, didn’t you? Tell me that you did!”
I shake my head and lie. “Yes to the first part, no to the second. Whenever I have the chance I shoot, but… I’ve stopped competing. We’ve been moving around, and every place has different rules and paperwork and stuff. Mine are in storage.”
“I know how complicated that can be, yes, I know,” she agrees, a tad disappointed. Then her face brightens. “But would you be willing to, well, just show up? You could borrow my Five-Seven. I’m sure the guys would love to see it! We shoot for fun. Most of us do. Sometimes we hold our own little tournament, and some of the guys may get a bit worked up, but you know how that goes.”
Yeah, I do. I hide my smile behind the cup, then take another sip before I nod. Cathy McKinnon just might pull it off, smiling at the camera, cradling an AK47. If only I was born a boy.
To be honest, I like the idea of shooting a bit more. It’s better than my irregular drives to the middle of nowhere, targeting empty cans. “If it's legal. And Mom lets me."
Miss McKinnon is all smiles and confidence. “She will. And Henry will take care of the rest."
"John's brother, my boyfriend. He's the sheriff, fantastic!” She rubs her hands in delight, then her face falls. “I think it’s time for the boring part now. I am supposed to tell you all about Nuttley and introduce you to your new classmates. Oh, don’t worry. I know it sucks to be the new girl, but I’ve been there as well. Besides, you’ve done this before. You should be good at it. At least somewhat. Anyway...” She gets up and grins. “The guys will love it!”
“I’m not competing anymore,” I repeat as I, too, get up.
“With the other girls?” She laughs and puts on a mock frown. “It’s tough out there for the new girl.”
I grimace. That’s something else I will never get used to or be good at. I'm just not into that 'girl competition' thing.
Miss McKinnon grins, enjoying my discomfort. “Now let’s make the rounds. Any questions before we start?”
“Yes. I was under the impression the year hadn’t started yet. I was expecting an empty school.”
“Oh, that. To quote director Nuttley, not related, mind you. At Nuttley's We Never Stop Learning."
I don’t know how she does it, but I can hear each capital.
She winks, then puts one finger up in the air counting out loud. “One. We’ve got a summer school and an early program for those that need a little extra help. You should know. Didn’t you attend school this summer?”
“My mom made a little extra doing summer teaching. My marks were fine,” I lie.
Cathy smiles wryly and I swallow. My marks weren’t that bad. They could have been better, yes, but I was busy.
Her second finger goes up. “Right… Anyway, two. The startup programs. You know, setting up school clubs, science projects, even assisting the groundskeeper. Some people have to do the heavy lifting so others can enjoy the boons. Lots of satisfaction and the bonus points don’t hurt either.” She sizes me up. “You’ve got any special talents? Science, sports, arts? No shooting.”
I shake my head. Texting, sulking, and hanging out at malls aren't exceptional skills. And killing dark things in the middle of the night doesn't count either I guess.
“Mmmm. That’s a pity. Some of those programs are very popular with the students. As well as with the parents. Though to be honest, that might just be because some of those parents are just sick and tired of their kids, after a long summer holiday. I wonder why...”
“Some kids might be tired of their parents too.”
“Really?” She feigns a surprise, and we both laugh. “Let me give you the tour, and then you can meet some of your new classmates. You’ll fit right in."
Me, I’m not that sure.