Graduation Ch. 01


"Whine away." Penny knew exactly what was coming.

"All right, for real? I frigging hate this book."

Yep. Penny had to make an active effort to not nod in solidarity. "Okay, watch the language, Caleb."

"Sorry," he continued. "Look, I try to read it, I swear. But I'm at the point where I'll read a page, and it's like I either have to stop reading or shoot myself." Caleb threw up his hand, as if he expected her to cut in at this point. "I know that's not an excuse, and I'm sorry. It's just, how do you get help with something like that? Do you have a brainwashing machine or something down in Guidance?"

"Well..." It was just one word, but Penny thought she was doing a good job of staying diplomatic so far. The truth was, she would've hugged him right there if she could have. Aside from her mutual dislike of the book, she always hated feeling intellectually inferior just because she didn't like something that was deemed important by other, supposedly greater people. One of her long-standing discomforts with being a teacher was perpetuating that cycle. Yeah, the overwhelming majority of her students didn't like reading through The Grapes of Wrath or The Catcher in the Rye, but at least she could help them understand what made them part of The Canon. A few even came away with a respect for the material they never thought they could have. By comparison, what the hell was The Light in the Forest?

What could she do, though? Tell him 'You're right, the book sucks, I'm sorry we're putting you through it'? She had Caleb's respect, sure, but that made it more important to not validate his frustration with it. She didn't want him to think it was okay to skip out on assigned work just because he didn't like it.

Penny had an idea. It was dangerous, but she thought Caleb could survive it academically if she could rule out any laziness on his part. Most of the kids who came to her complaining about a book usually wouldn't say much more than "It's just stupid," or "dumb," or "boring," and she knew to give those kids a verbal pat on the head, tell them to suck it up, and invite them to come back when they could have an actual conversation about the assigned reading. So, "Let's start with what you don't like about the book."

"True Son," said Caleb, almost before Penny could finish her sentence. "Which is weird because he gets the ultimate sympathy card, right? Abducted as a kid, assimilated into a Native culture that taught him to hate the white man, then forced to go back to the white men? That would mess anyone up."

"But you're not sympathetic to that. Why?"

"Because all I can think about is what an ungrateful douche he is! True Son managed to take all that goodwill and piss it away shitting on his Dad—"

"Caleb, language!"

Caleb cringed. "Sorry," he said. He regrouped and continued. "Look, I could probably roll with it if I had any reason to give aaaa..."

Penny gave Caleb her best stink-eye, daring him to finish the word.

" care...about what was happening. If there was, interesting thematic stuff, I don't know if I'm saying it right."

"We probably wouldn't call it 'thematic stuff,' but I understand what you mean. Go on."

"Well, what's the point that this guy's trying to make? That white men were jerks to the natives? This book actually makes me care less about how terrible white people are, which I guess is kind of impressive enough to make it worth studying, I don't know."

Now Penny allowed herself to nod. There was, of course, a lot more to the book; even she had to admit that. But she couldn't say he didn't try, which unfortunately left her out of options.

Save for the nuclear one, at least.

Penny took a pen out of her Fat Pony mug and started writing out a hall pass on a pad of paper. "Well," she said, "I can't say you don't understand the book so far. But, as you recognize, you're not actually required to like the books you read and write about. It just makes it easier to read them and write about them."

"I understand."

"Good. So you understand that short of signing you up for Alt Study, there's nothing I can do. What room are you going to?"

"303. What's 'Alt Study'?"

Penny tore off the sheet of paper as theatrically as she could. "You don't want Alt Study," she warned.

"Well, I don't know what Alt Study is, so how would you know I don't want it?"

"Alt Study is shorthand for Individual Alternative Study Plan. It tends to be reserved for people with hang-ups over certain materials; moral objections to dissecting frogs, the occasional religious exemption, you know." She leaned in, giving him a conspiratorial look and maybe the faintest view down her blouse. "My take on it is very different. We're talking AP-caliber work; I'd be careful before you tell me you're interested."

"Well..." Caleb's eyes took the briefest glance into Penny's cleavage before forcing his eyes back up to her. "...what exactly would I have to do?"

"Normally, you'd have to stay after school twice a week, which normally wouldn't be too much of a problem, except I imagine you're still involved with athletics, as well as some other clubs to beef up your college resume, right?"


"So you might have to come in on Saturdays for a two-hour English lab. There go any Friday night blowouts with the boys."

This was often the most discouraging part of making an Alt Study pitch: If someone took to it, that created a whole load of extra work for no extra pay, which is why she only offered it to students she really liked and could truly benefit from it. In this case, the mark was Caleb. The worst that could happen was that she'd have to babysit his tight ass on Saturdays for free while discussing her favorite book in the world -- a book he might not be excited about, but something she thought he could handle with her help, should he really try to take it on. He couldn't possibly be more comfortable with that than she would be.

"Come in here?" Caleb asked.

"Well, we'd probably do it at a local Starbucks or something, which doesn't seem that bad, I admit. However, all that is before I tell you what book you'll be reading."

"And what book would that be?"

Penny shook her head. Normally, everything would be set up and agreed upon between the teacher, his or her student, and the student's parents before Alt Study commenced. With the blessing of administration, however, Penny did things just a little differently.

"So right now, you have The Light in the Forest. A known quantity. Short, easy, dull as ditchwater. You can keep at it and tough it out, can pick door number two. You don't know what's behind door number two. Could be Hustler magazine. Could be The Necronomicon. But if you pick door number two, you're in it for the full ride. You lose the known quantity and you have to accept whatever's behind that door. You understand? There's no going back."

Every student Penny ever offered this choice to would take pause at this point, whether they chose to stick with what they were reading or opted for Door Number Two. About three out of every four folded.

Caleb only needed two seconds to say "Door number two," with a determined rumble in his voice that made Penny's heart flutter.

"Well, okay then." Penny wrote out one more hall pass. "When's your study hall period again?"


"Perfect," said Penny, tearing off the second hall pass and giving it to Caleb. "Meet me at the library. I'll give you the book and we'll go over the first chapter together."

"Cool, Miss Piper. Thanks a lot." Caleb gave Penny a little salute, turned on his heels, and walked away. On his way out, Penny couldn't help but notice that he was wearing his tight jeans today; she wished he'd wear them every day.

But once he left, she laughed to herself. What she was about to do to this poor kid was deeply beneficial and superficially evil.

First, Penny used her free period to call Caleb's mother Amelia. Amelia was almost always available to talk, but her time was precious, so Penny laid out the situation as quickly as she could and explained the plan to get her son back on track. Amelia understood the pitfalls of Penny's idea but loved it anyway; she promised to keep an eye on Caleb and report back if he seemed overwhelmed by the workload.

Armed with Amelia's blessing, Penny went straight for the library. There was a little knot of fear forming under her lungs, tightened by the knowledge of her book being freely available for checkout. Considering the book, she wanted to write it off as an irrational knot, but all the same, it refused to let up until she found it: top shelf, just past the second door, dusty as ever. For somebody she allegedly liked so much, she sure was excited about seeing his spirit break before her eyes.

Caleb arrived at the library minutes after the 6th period bell rang, just as Penny had selected a table and placed a little scarf over the book like it was the signature story of that week's Iron English Student. On his way over, he acknowledged a group of girls -- cheerleaders most likely, they had that vibe -- who dipped their heads just slightly to get a good look at the goods Penny noticed for herself earlier. She had to smile; it was heartening to know that some high school girls didn't have terrible taste in boys.

"So," Penny explained, "this book, which was written in the 19th century, is about twice as long as The Light in the Forest. That means in order to finish before the end of the quarter, you'll have to do a lot of reading at home, and our individual sessions might have to run long in order to cover everything you need to know. This might be the most intellectually intense six weeks of your life." Penny's hand hovered over the scarf, preparing to lift it. "Last chance to turn back," she said. "No judgements."

Caleb shook his head. "Let's just get this over with."

Penny pulled the scarf, and got exactly the reaction she was excited for once Caleb realized he was going to have to power through Pride & Prejudice by the end of the quarter.

"Man, the book that inspired that stupid-looking zombie movie?"

"I think you'll find that knowledge of the book makes the stupid-looking zombie movie better, actually." Penny steepled her fingers and grinned her best evil grin because by now Caleb had to know it was all in good fun. What Caleb probably didn't know -- what his mother would surely tell him if things got too stressful over the weekend -- was that Penny was almost counting on him to give up and beg to go back to The Light in the Forest like all the other students eventually did, and although she planned to make a big production out of it, she would be more than happy to acquiesce. After all, nothing was official yet.

"What do you say, Caleb? Think you can handle it?"

"I think I'm in trouble," said Caleb. "But I just had to know what could be harder to read than the...uh, thing I was reading before." Caleb picked up the book, flipped through it, and his eyes seemed to light up a little bit. "Then again," he realized, "if you could guide me through Shakespeare, anything can happen, right?"

That earnest, game-for-everything grin, the one that melted her pussy whenever she thought of it, was back again. Penny had learned to prepare for it since she first saw it, but just for a second she wished she was one of those cheerleaders that Caleb nodded at earlier.

"We only have 40 minutes," said Penny, cracking open the book. "Let's dive right into Chapter 1." She slid the book over to Caleb. "Read out loud for me."

Caleb leaned into the pages. "'It is a truth universally acknowledged," he read, "that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a..." He couldn't complete the sentence without sniggering. "...of a wife.'"

Penny cocked her head. "Why's that funny to you?"

"It's not supposed to be?" He sounded worried even though he was still chuckling over the line. "I mean, she's pretty much nailing how guys operate even today; no matter what we do, no matter how good we are, it's never enough unless we're...look, there's no clean way to say this: unless we're pulling down trim."

"Come on, Caleb, you couldn't say 'pick up women?'"

"No, because we don't talk about them like they're people -- not in the locker rooms, anyway. It's 'trim,' 'pussy,' 'piece of...ass,' you know? That's what matters to us more than anything off the field. Obviously that's not exactly how things worked in 19-whatever, but when she says that a man with all this money must want 'a wife' and not a woman and calls it 'a truth universally acknowledged,' well, it seems like she's making fun of the whole concept from the jump."

That, as they say, is when shit got real.

"She's sly about it, but she's still doing it. There's a term for that, I think, I wish I could remember it."

Penny would eventually tell Caleb that the term he was looking for was "satire," and that the book was, more specifically, a comedy of manners. At the moment, however, she was too busy shaking her head, jaw practically on the table.

"That bad?" Caleb asked.

"Yeah," said Penny. "If a book was written in the 19th century, that means it was written in 18-whatever, not 19-whatever. Other than that...the only reason I'm not slow-clapping you right now is because we're in a library. That's an incredibly astute observation."

"Thanks!" Caleb turned shy in that way one only could when he felt really proud of himself.

"Keep going; I think you'll find the rest pretty funny too."

* * * * *

"Hey, you wanna hear a joke?"

No she fucking didn't. Penny had come in to Silver Spoons because the bar was in walking distance of her apartment and she needed to get sloshed after a day of cascading failures that somehow managed to continue into her third Bacardi and Coke.

"What fucks like a tiger and blinks a lot?"

Well, he wasn't waiting for permission. He was a stringy, balding man with a voice of glass and a tan line around his ring finger. Penny wanted to say that he was cannonballing himself back into the dating pool, but that would imply that he made everyone around him wet.

"I don't know, what?" she asked, because she might as well have.

He leaned in and broke into sort of mild epileptic fit. "You tell me," he tried to purr.

"Oh, I get it," she said with the sharp twang of her last string breaking. "You're blinking a lot, and that's supposed to moist my nethers or something."

"Can you blame a guy for trying?" he asked, stupidly. "Lemme buy you a drink. My apology for the bad joke."

"Don't apologize for the joke, apologize for your existence, you mealy-mouthed little trash fire." She was normally a little more careful about how she turned down guys, but it was that kind of day. Let him follow her home. Let him shoot her in the face if he was that kind of asshole. Fuck it, she was done.

"Whoa! Look, I'm trying to be nice! You're hot! Take the compliment already!"

"If you actually knew what a compliment was, your wife might not laugh at your dick as often."

"You fucking whore!"

"Yo, Lizzie, this guy bothering you?"

Oh, great. And now the underage drinker she chose to ignore because he did moisten her nethers was coming to back her up. So on top of everything that happened today, now there was a slightly better chance that somebody could see them together, report it to the school, and get her fired.

She had to give Caleb credit, though; the fake name was an interesting play.

"I'm fine, Darcy," she said, thinking on her feet. "He was just about to leave."

"Who the hell names their son Darcy?"

"Look, guy." There was a surprising Tesh-like smoothness in Caleb's voice. "I like this bar. I really don't want to get banned from it. Do all of us a favor and walk away."

Caleb had half a foot and a hundred pounds clean on the schmuck. He didn't have to think about it too much, which might have been part of the problem.

Fft! A fat, translucent blob of saliva pelted Penny on the cheek, and before Caleb could process it, the schmuck was already stomping off to whatever pore of the bar he oozed out of. Caleb made it two steps after him before Penny grabbed his wrist.

"Let it go." She spoke in a flat tone, because if she allowed herself to feel anything at that moment, she'd be screaming at Caleb to put that motherfucker in the ICU. "If the cops get called, you're going to jail."

Caleb seemed to have a hard time caring.

"You drove him away, and he knows you're looking out for me so he won't come back later. That's all that matters. Don't be a guy about it."

Caleb needed a deep breath, but he eventually turned away. He grabbed a napkin from the holder on Penny's table and wiped the disgusting loogie off her face.

"Thanks, I guess."

"Of course."

"Sorry if I seem ungrateful, I just—"

"Yeah, I'm kinda wondering if I just walked into a trap too." Before Caleb sat down with his beer, Penny took a minute to soak in his look: he was wearing those tight jeans she loved so much, as well as a short-sleeved button down with the top two buttons popped open, giving her a tantalizing glimpse of his smooth, chiseled chest. "What are you doing here, Miss Piper?"

"Short version? This bar's in walking distance of my apartment."

"What's the long version?"

So Penny told him. About the pothole she hit on her way to school that snapped her car's front-right axle in two. The hour she had to wait for a tow truck. The test she was supposed to proctor that she missed. The $700 estimate for replacing the axle. The taxi that took forever to get to her because the stupid cabbie thought she was at a DIFFERENT repair shop on the other side of town. Telling all this to her grandmother, the woman who raised her and inspired her to be a teacher, and having her first question be if the cabbie was a Mexican because "they always mess up things like that." And then she told him about the literal turd on top of this metaphorical shit sundae of a day: The bird that crapped on her just before she got in the door of her apartment.

"Good God!"

"Yeah. I never felt like I had to get drunk before. I didn't even drink that much in college. Whenever I was down, I read Jane Austen novels and listened to Stephen Sondheim musicals. Now..." She took a big pull of her rum and coke, more to accentuate how fucked up she was over the situation than out of any pressing desire to do so. "Slick P&P reference, by the way."

"Thanks. I just didn't want him to know your name." Caleb finished his beer. "Having said that...c'mon. 'Darcy'? Really?"

Penny laughed. "I'm sorry! It was the best I could think of on the fly!"

"I know it's part of the joke and all, but do I look like a guy from, like, Stuffington, New England? Am I wearing an aquamarine sweater vest, insisting that first cousins are legal?"

Penny choked, momentarily breaking down into a jiggling pile of barely contained laughter and snorts. "Jesus, you've got an imagination!"

"Don't be too impressed. Most of that came from a video game I played a few years back."

"Ah. Well, video games haven't rotted your brain yet." Penny, aware of her unorthodox-at-best surroundings, leaned toward Caleb and dropped her voice a few octaves. "I submitted your grades yesterday: A- for the class, 92 on your final. Way to go."

"Wow." Caleb looked genuinely shocked. "Uh, thanks."

Penny smiled and shook her head. "I didn't do it. That was all you, tiger." Off that word, Caleb grimaced. That would've made Penny regret its use if she wasn't already grimacing herself. "Ugh, why did I say that?"

"It would've been cool on any other day."

"Seriously, I can't thank you enough for being my hero back there. Even though you really shouldn't be here, I'm glad you were."

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