"This is ridiculous!" Clutching her purse so tightly her knuckles were white, the woman glared across the desk at the school principal. "He said he didn't touch the hamster, and my child doesn't lie. The very idea!"
J. Clarence Cosgrove had been principal of Ellington Middle School for six years, and a teacher for twenty years before that. He was accustomed to dealing with irate parents, but the tall, thin woman seated before him and the child sitting so sedately beside her, unnerved him. He hated to use the vernacular, but they were weird. Though he knew it was a wasted effort, he tried to reason with her. "There was a witness – "
"Mrs. Whitcomb put him up to saying that. Corin would never, never have hurt that hamster, would you, darling?"
"No, Mother." The voice was almost unearthly sweet, but the child's eyes were cold and unblinking as they stared at Mr. Cosgrove, as if weighing the denial's effect on him. "See, I told you so!" the woman cried triumphantly. Mr. Cosgrove tried again. "Mrs. Whitcomb – "
" – has disliked Corin from the first day of school. She's the one you need to be interrogating, not my child." The woman's lips were thin with fury. "I spoke with her two weeks ago about the filth she was putting in the children's heads, and told her that while I couldn't control what she told the other children, I absolutely would not have her speaking about" – she darted a glance at Corin – "s-e-x to my child. That's why she's done this."
"Mrs. Whitcomb has an excellent record as a teacher. She wouldn't – "
"She has! Don't tell me what that woman won't do when she obviously has! Why, I wouldn't put it beyond her to have killed the hamster herself!"
"The hamster was her personal pet, which she brought to school to teach the children about – "
"She could still have killed it. Good God, it was just a big rat," the woman said dismissively. "I don't understand what all the fuss is about even if Corin had killed it, which he didn't. He's being persecuted – persecuted – and I won't stand for it. Either you take care of that woman or I'll do it for you."
Mr. Cosgrove removed his glasses and wearily polished the lenses, just to give himself something to do while he tried to think of a way to neutralize this woman's poison before she ruined a good teacher's career. Reasoning with her was out; so far she hadn't let him complete a single sentence. He glanced at Corin; the child was still watching him, wearing an angelic expression totally at odds with those cold eyes.
"May I speak with you privately?" he asked the woman. She looked taken aback. "Why? If you think you can convince me my darling Corin – "
"Just for a moment," he interrupted, hiding his tiny spurt of relish at being the one doing the interrupting this time. From her expression, she didn't like it at all. "Please." He tacked that on, though he was almost beyond being polite. "Well, all right," she said reluctantly. "Corin, darling, go stand outside. Stay right by the door, where Mother can see you."
Mr. Cosgrove got up and firmly closed the door behind the child. She looked alarmed at this turn of events, at not being able to see her child, and half rose out of her chair. "Please," he said again. "Sit down."
"But Corin – "
" – will be all right." Another interruption scored on his side, he thought. He resumed his seat and picked up a pen, tapping it against his desk blotter as he tried to come up with a diplomatic way to broach his subject. There was no way diplomatic enough for this woman, he realized, and decided to jump right in. "Have you ever considered getting help for Corin? A good child psychologist – "
"Are you crazy?" she hissed, her face twisted with instant rage as she surged to her feet. "Corin doesn't need a psychologist! There's nothing wrong with him. The problem is with that bitch, not with my child. I should have known this meeting was a waste of time, that you'd take her side."
"I want what's best for Corin," he said, managing to keep his voice calm. "The hamster is just the latest incident, not the first one. There's been a pattern of disturbing behavior that goes beyond mischief – "
"The other children are jealous of him," she charged. "I know how the little bastards pick on him, and that bitch does nothing to stop it or protect him. He tells me everything. If you think I'll let him stay in this school and be hounded – "
"You're right," he said smoothly. On the Scoreboard her interruptions outnumbered his, but this was the important one. "Another school would probably be best, at this stage. Corin doesn't fit in here. I can recommend some good private schools – "
"Don't bother," she snapped as she strode to the door. "I can't imagine why you think I'd trust your recommendation." With that parting shot, she jerked open the door and grabbed Corin by the arm. "Come along, darling. You won't ever have to come back here again."
Mr. Cosgrove moved to his window and watched as the pair got into an old two-door Pontiac, yellow with brown rust spots pocking the left front fender. He had solved his immediate problem, that of protecting Mrs. Whitcomb, but he was well aware that the bigger problem had just walked out of his office. God help the faculty at whatever school Corin landed in next. Maybe, somewhere down the line, someone would step in and get Corin into counseling before too much damage was done… unless it was already too late.