Doctor Hendall sat down at his mahogany desk and drummed his fingers on the finish. On the back wall, he had a silver plaque that said, "Semper Fidelis." His three piece-suit made me feel like I was going to be prosecuted by an attorney.
"You know what you did was wrong," he said.
"I can explain–"
"Don't. Sit down, Monty."
I laid my bookbag on the floor and sat down in the chair. Doctor Hendall pulled out a side drawer and got out a piece of blank paper. He clicked his pen and drew a line three inches from the top.
"Write your name and date."
"It was just to look at the time."
The fluorescent light above emitted a faint buzz. Lockers were slammed, and I heard a conversation about staying over at a friend's house for the night. The pen beside the paper was caustic, oozing with acid I was sure would sear my flesh as soon as I touched it.
"You gotta believe me."
"We could go to Principle Martin's office right now. An offense like this would lead to a week suspension at best. Pick up the pen and write."
I sighed and wrote, "Montgomery Sanchez. May 29th, 2005." I dared myself to look at Doctor Hendall.
"Do you want me to start?"
Doctor Hendall shook his head and picked up the paper.
"Montgomery Sanchez. This is who you are?"
"Yes?" I raised an eyebrow.
"I don't think so."
"What do you mean?"
Doctor Hendall swiveled his chair to his computer and clicked on a website. In the corner of my eye, Jason and TJ passed by the office. They stopped, and Jason whispered something to TJ. I felt my face burn crimson. They probably thought that I was gonna snitch.
"Look here," Doctor Hendall said. The screen had my previous quiz scores in a column. The first score was fifty-five. The next four were one hundreds. "Explain to me this."
"Grades." I gave a slight shrug.
"Don't get smart with me. What is this?"
I didn't know what the hell he was talking about. I looked at the site once more and mined for any deeper meaning.
"Record of what?"
"I-I don't know. Honest." I could see the growing pit stains in my lemon-colored shirt I got from the thrift store.
Doctor Hendall got up from his desk and turned the monitor fully in my direction. He pointed at the grades and said, "This is a record of your work ethic. Unless you cheated on these quizzes as well?"
"No. Why are you asking me this?" I felt a tiny rebel beat in my heart.
Doctor Hendall sat back down and adjusted his glasses. For a moment, his invincible exterior lapsed.
"What happened, Monty?" he said. "What purpose could that phone bring if you had studied for the exam like you always did?"
"I was just looking up the time, Doctor Hendall. I promise." I twiddled my thumbs and tapped my foot. Something about lying to him made me sick to my stomach.
"I have a clock on my desk. Give me a straight answer. Did you make the flashcards as I told you to?"
"Yes." Bile seeped up my throat.
"Let me see them."
I froze, panic ringing out throughout my mind. I felt as if sand had been shoved into my mouth and soaked up all the moisture. I reached down into my book bag and brought out a plastic baggy with a stack of notecards in them. The front-facing one had some scribblings about German submarines on it. Doctor Hendall placed them on his desk and went through each one. During the first part of the stack, he seemed content. Pleased even. But as he met an avalanche of blank notecards, his brow furrowed into the deepest canyon.
"Monty, half of these are blank." His voice had a tinge of disbelief to it, making the sting all the worse.
"I meant to fill the rest later."
"And why didn't you do that?"
"Because Jason and the crew asked me if I wanted to hang out at his place."
"Jason Marston?" Doctor Hendall reeled his head back in disgust.
"Yeah. He's pretty cool." I heard Jason whisper across the hall, He's so fucked, dude.
Doctor Hendall got up from his desk, walked over to the door, and slammed the door.
"You're too good for a miscreant like him."
I felt my jaw slack and fire burn in my belly.
"Wait, what?" I said.
Doctor Hendall paced back and forth in a semi-manic fury. "He's nothing from trouble. Smokes weed behind the Walmart with his other hooligans. Constantly skips class. A new girl every week."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Doctor Hendall, the man whose voice was more monotone than a monorail, was mad. It was only the slightest change, a crinkle in the eyebrows, a small dip in the corners of the lips, but the sight was utterly unreal.
"I don't see what the big problem is," I said. "I'm not allowed to have friends or something?"
"Certainly not with his kind. I thought he bullied you at the beginning of the year?"
"Well, yeah. But we got cool after I helped him with the quizzes." I shifted in my chair and crossed my arms. I felt a certain smugness course through my body as if I had proclaimed a great accomplishment, which was then followed by horrifying panic. I had spoken too much.
"Did you give him answers?" His eyes narrowed, and his voice lowered to a dangerous tone. He drilled holes in my body with his eyes as if he was trying to extract the information from me.
"No. I swear." I glanced at the door, hoping that he hadn't locked it.
"Tell me the truth, Monty."
"I–I helped him out. Some last-minute studying." My body tingled, sweat resuming their parade across my forehead.
"Did you or did you not give him answers?" Pitch black darkness had fallen over his eyes. Fury seeped into his words.
Swallowing whatever bravery I had left, I said, "Yes."
For ten seconds, Doctor Hendall stood in silence. His aura permeated the whole room. I felt powerless to run, the gravity of the situation crushing me against the chair. The school bell rang, signaling the end of the day. Muffled chatter from the students bustling out of their classrooms panged through the air. I wanted him to scream at me already, knock me out of the chair and throw me against the wall — anything to break the silence.
"I'm disappointed in you, Montgomery." Doctor Hendall marched back to his desk and began to write something in a Word document. I felt as if someone had slapped me. Tears welled up in my eyes. I balled up my fist and clenched my teeth. I was trying to hold something back, but the chains kept snapping apart until–
"I wouldn't have given him the answers if your quizzes weren't so freaking hard."
Doctor Hendall stopped his typing and turned his head.
"I believe you have a paper to write. Ten pages, at minimum."
"Everyone fails each one. How am I the bad guy for trying to make sure someone doesn't flunk out of school?"
I snatched the paper from the desk and took out my pencil. The point was blunt, and the eraser was gone from when I erased rewrote answers for question three.
"In black pen, Monty."
"You know I can't spell."
"Try your best."
I dropped the pencil onto the floor, grabbed a pen from his pen holder, and started to write. After I finished the first side of the page, I said, "Do you want me to use both sides or only one?"
"Read it out loud."
I trilled my lips and said, "Fine. 'Hello, Diane. I am writing you this letter today because I am guilty of cheating on a mid-term and giving out a couple of answers to friends. I used my phone to look up how to spell Chattanooga because Doctor Hendall insists on perfect spelling for some weird-ass reason. I know you are not going to look at this, seeing how you're getting drunk and spending my college fund in Vegas for the past week. You left me twenty bucks and half a box of Pop-Tarts. The garbage people don't come around anymore since you cussed them out for three months, so I have to live in a hovel of filth. Anything Doctor Hendall can do to me, you can probably do much worse. But you don't care. As long as you have a bottle in one hand and a cigarette in another, you don't give a damn." It became hard for me to read any further as the paper was shaking. "There? Happy?"
Doctor Hendall had a look of concern on his face. Something resembling sympathy.
"Monty," he said, "Are you alright?"
"I'm fine. Do you want me to continue or not?"
"Monty." Doctor Hendall took the paper from my hand and laid it on the table. I saw that there were small splotches on it. "Do you want to tell me something?"
"No. Just give me another paper. The buses are about to leave, and I don't want to miss my ride."
"I can give you a ride. Is everything alright at home?"
I could hear the false sympathy dripping off his voice. My lips were sealed shut. I twirled the pen around in my hand, darted my eyes away from him, and focused on the trashcan by the door. It was filled with crumpled-up papers and coffee cups. The one at home was overflowing with ramen noodle cups, cigarette boxes, and beer bottles.
"We don't have to talk about it if you want," Doctor Hendall said. "But it might be better to put it out there. Whatever is said in this room stays in this room."
"I didn't want to disappoint you."
The words slipped out of my mouth, and hearing them out in the open made me feel ridiculous.
"Monty, I'm not going to think less of you for making below a hundred," Doctor Hendall said. He took off his glasses, and for the first time, I noticed how gentle his eyes were. They seemed to be weighed down by some inexplicable force, an air of grief, but the reflections of light gave me a sense of kindness that was foreign to me. "I wouldn't even think less of you if you failed the exam. Just as long as you try your best. And if you had some problems at home that kept you from focusing on the test, then I understand."
"I didn't want to give Jason and his friends the answers." I felt something wet roll down my cheeks. My vision blurred. After wiping my eyes, I said, "I knew how pissed off you'd be, so I told them no. But they kept bugging me about it, telling me that I'd be their pall if I did so. I tried giving them only half-answers if that helps. Like, I would tell them what kinds of questions were on the quizzes, but not the exact answers for them." I gripped the armrest, and my knuckles turned white. "I'm sorry."
"Is your mother actually in Vegas?"
"Yup." A mournful laugh creaked out from my throat. "Turns out my grandparents left some money for college in their will when they died two years ago. Diane said I wasn't going to use it anyway. Said that I was always going to be a bum living at home." I nodded my head and let out a noise between a chuckle and a sob.
"That is complete and utter bullshit." Doctor Hendall stood up from his desk and walked over to me. His posture, once rigid and formal, had slumped down into a more casual stance. More than that, his whole demeanor was something I had never seen before. It was as if cracks were sprawling all over in his shell professionalism. "If your Mother cannot see what a bright young man you are, then she is a fool. Excuse my language."
"But she's right."
It was a sick catharsis to admit such a thing. Like I had thrown up, and there was still bile stewing in my stomach.
Doctor Hendall grabbed a plastic chair on the edge of the wall and sat down. We were now facing each other on an equal playing field.
"Monty, I've been in your position before. I've made more mistakes than I care to admit. I was like a shivering rat in an empty trashcan, no way out."
Doctor Hendall glanced at the door, leaned back, and turned the lock. He then rolled his right sleeve and presented the belly of his right arm. Bulbous red splotches dotted the skin with patches of black around the elbows. Diane had the same arms.
"Started when I was sixteen," he said. "Took me ten years to stop. Military didn't mind the habit as long as I kept my gun steady and followed orders."
"No wonder you wear a suit."
Doctor Hendall laughed, rolled down his sleeve, and placed his hands on his knees. In both semesters I had him, I never heard him even chuckle. It sounded wonderful, full of mirth and joy.
"That, and it scares the shit out of the freshman," he said. His brow grew heavy, and the rancorous glee he became clouded. "Every now and then, when I'm taking a walk, when I'm grading papers, Hell, even in class, I feel that ghost scratching my arm, telling me, 'One more time, for old times' sake.'" Doctor Hendall rubbed his left hand on his right arm and pursed his lips. He became human.
"Wow. That's terrible," I said. I cleared my throat and added, "I don't do drugs, though if that is what you're worried about."
Doctor Hendall cocked his head back, slapped his knee, and bellowed a boisterous laugh. I didn't know whether to join in or cower in terror, so I settled on an awkward giggle.
"Son," he said, "I see something in you that others are blind to. You got a spark in you, an ember waiting to turn into an inferno. Again, excuse my language, but your mother doesn't know shit."
I had heard the proper reaction of someone insulting your mother was to get angry, but I found myself hoping Dr. Hendall would insult her more. It was as if a small vindictive tree was taking root within myself.
I smiled and said, "I guess you got a point."
"Damn straight; I do," he said.
The tiny rebel in my heart thumped faster and faster. I wanted to break something, release the evidence onto the world that Diane was a lying whore.
I stood up and said, "Do you have the next quiz ready?"
Befuddlement clouded Doctor Hendall's face. "Yes? Why do you ask–"
I extended my hand to him and beckoned the challenge.
"Give it to me. I studied ahead to the next chapter."
Doctor Hendall looked at me as if I had those splotches on his arms all over my face. Then, an audacious grin struck across his face. He opened up a cabinet drawer and shuffled through files with vigor. It was as if he was a completely different person, replaced with someone free of fifty years of stress, pain, and torment. I wanted to see him like this all the time.
Doctor Hendall slapped the paper in front of me and said, "You're still in trouble, I hope you know that. This isn't going to count as a replacement grade."
I scooted up my chair to his desk and clicked the black pen. This WWII quiz was going to be my manifesto, a statement to all that Montgomery Sanchez was here on Earth, ready to strike down any naysayers with his pen.
"Give me ten minutes," I said. Just from the first question alone, I knew I could finish it in five.