“If that’s all, then it brings us to the final order of business in our brief but en-lightening stay together,” I said. “Have you learned anything today? Who knows the final order of business? Let’s see.”
I watched them. There was nothing. I was afraid it wouldn’t come, couldn’t come. So tight, so frozen, all of them. When you’re five and you hurt, you make a big noise unto the world. At ten you whimper. But by the time you make fifteen you begin to eat the poisoned apples that grow on your own inner tree of pain. It’s the Western Way of Enlightenment. You begin to cram your fists into your mouth to stifle the screams. You bleed on the inside. But they had gone so far . . .
And then Pig Pen looked up from his pencil. He was smiling a small, red-eyed smile, the smile of a ferret. His hand crept up into the air, the fingers still clenched around his cheap writing instrument.
Be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby.
So then it was easier for the rest of them. One electrode begins to arc and sputter, and-yoiks!-look, professor, the monster walks tonight.
Susan Brooks put her hand up next. Then there were several together: Sandra raised hers, Grace Stanner raised hers-delicately-and Irma Bates did likewise. Corky. Don. Pat. Sarah Pasterne. Some smiling a little, most of them solemn. Tanis. Nancy Caskin. Dick Keene and Mike Gavin, both renowned in the Pla-cerville Greyhounds’ backfield. George and Harmon, who played chess together in study hall.
Melvin Thomas. Anne Lasky. At the end all of them were up-all but one.
I called on Carol Granger, because I thought she deserved her moment. You would have thought that she might have had the most trouble making the switch, crossing the terminator, so to speak, but she had done it almost effortlessly, like a girl shedding her clothes in the bushes after dusk had come to the class picnic.
“Carol?” I said. “What’s the answer?”
She thought about how to word it. She put a finger up to the small dimple beside her mouth as she thought, and there was a furrow in her milk-white brow.
“We have to help,” she said. “We have to help show Ted where he has gone wrong. ”
That was a very tasteful way to put it, I thought.
“Thank you, Carol,” I said.
I looked at Ted, who had come back to the here and now. He was glaring again, but in kind of a confused way.
“I think the best thing,” I said, “would be if I became a sort of combination judge and public attorney.
Everyone else can be witnesses; and of course, you’re the defendant, Ted.”
Ted laughed wildly. “You,” he said. “Oh, Jesus, Charlie. Who do you think you are? You’re crazy as a bat. ”
“Do you have a statement?” I asked him.
“You’re not going to play tricks with me, Charlie. I’m not saying a darn thing. I’ll save my speech for when we get out of here.” His eyes swept his classmates accusingly and distrustfully. “And I’ll have a lot to say.”
“You know what happens to squealers, Rocco,” I said in a tough Jimmy Cag-ney voice. I brought the pistol up suddenly, pointed it at his head, and screamed “BANG!”
Ted shrieked in surprise.
Anne Lasky laughed merrily.
“Shut up! ” Ted yelled at her.
“Don’t you tell me to shut up,” she said. “What are you so afraid of?”
“What . . . ?” His jaw dropped. The eyes bulged. In that moment I felt a great deal of pity for him. The Bible says the snake tempted Eve with the apple. What would have happened if he had been forced to eat it himself?
Ted half-rose from his seat, trembling. “What am I . . . ? What am I . . . ?” He pointed a shivering finger at Anne, who did not cringe at all. “YOU GODDAMN SILLY BITCH! HE HAS GOT A GUN! HE IS
CRAZY! HE HAS SHOT TWO PEOPLE! DEAD! HE IS HOLDING US HERE!”
“Not me, he isn’t,” Irma said. “I could have walked right out.”
“We’ve learned some very good things about ourselves, Ted,” Susan said coldly. “I don’t think you’re being very helpful, closing yourself in and trying to be superior. Don’t you realize that this could be the most meaningful experience of our lives?”
“He’s a killer,” Ted said tightly. “He killed two people. This isn’t TV. Those people aren’t going to get up and go off to their dressing rooms to wait for the next take. They’re really dead. He killed them.’
“Soul killer!” Pig Pen hissed suddenly.
“Where the fuck do you think you get off?” Dick Keene asked. “All this just shakes the shit out of your tight little life, doesn’t it? You didn’t think anybody’d find out about you banging Sandy, did you? Or your mother. Ever think about her? You think you’re some kind of white knight. I’ll tell you what you are.
You’re a cocksucker. ”
“Witness! Witness!” Grace cried merrily, waving her hand. “Ted Jones buys girlie magazines. I’ve seen him in Ronnie’s Variety doing it.”
“Beat off much, Ted?” Harmon asked. He was smiling viciously.
“And you were a Star Scout,” Pat said dolorously.
Ted twitched from them like a bear that has been tied to a post for the villagers’ amusement. ” I don’t masturbate! ” he yelled.
“Right,” Corky said disgustedly.
“I bet you really stink in bed,” Sylvia said. She looked at Sandra. “Did he stink in bed?”
“We didn’t do it in bed,” Sandra said. “We were in a car. And it was over so quick . . . ”
“Yeah, that’s what I figured.”
“All right,” Ted said. His face was sweaty. He stood up. “I’m walking out of here. You’re all crazy. I’ll tell them . . . ” He stopped and added with a strange and touching irrelevancy, “I never meant what I said about my mother. ” He swal-lowed. “You can shoot me, Charlie, but you can’t stop me. I’m going out.”
I put the gun down on the blotter. “I have no intention of shooting you, Ted. But let me remind you that
you haven’t really done your duty.”
“That’s right,” Dick said, and after Ted had taken two steps toward the door, Dick came out of his seat, took two running steps of his own, and collared him. Ted’s face dissolved into utter amazement.
“Hey, Dick,” he said.
“Don’t you Dick me, you son of a bitch.”
Ted tried to give him an elbow in the belly, and then his arms were pinned be-hind him, one by Pat and one by George Yannick.
Sandra Cross got slowly out of her seat and walked to him, demurely, like a girl on a country road.
Ted’s eyes were bulging, half-mad. I could taste what was com-ing, the way you can taste thunderheads before summer rain . . . and the hail that comes with it sometimes.
She stopped before him, and an expression of sly, mocking devotion crossed her face and was gone.
She put a hand out, touched the collar of his shirt. The muscles of his neck bunched as he jerked away from her. Dick and Pat and George held him like springs. She reached slowly inside the open collar of the khaki shirt and began to pull it open, popping the buttons. There was no sound in the room but the tiny, flat tic-tic as the buttons fell to the floor and rolled. He was wearing no undershirt. His flesh was bare and smooth. She moved as if to kiss it, and he spit in her face.
Pig Pen smiled from over Sandra’s shoulder, the grubby court jester with the king’s paramour. “I could put your eyes out,” he said. “Do you know that? Pop them out just like olives. Poink! Poink!”
“Let me go!Charlie, make them let me-”
“He cheats, ” Sarah Pasterne said loudly. “He always looks at my answer sheet in French. Always.”
Sandra stood before him, now looking down, a sweet, murmurous smile barely curving the bow of her lips. The first two fingers of her right hand touched the slick spittle on her cheek lightly.
“Here,” Billy Sawyer whispered. “Here’s something for you, handsome.” He crept up behind Ted on tippy-toe and suddenly pulled his hair.
“He cheats on the laps in gym, too,” Don said harshly. “You really quit foot-ball because you dint have no sauce, dintchoo?”
“Please,” Ted said. “Please, Charlie.” He had begun to grin oddly, and his eyeballs were shiny with tears.
Sylvia had joined the little circle around him. She might have been the one who goosed him, but I couldn’t really see.
They were moving around him in a slow kind of dance that was nearly beautiful. Fingers pinched and pulled, questions were asked, accusations made. Irma Bates pushed a ruler down the back of his pants.