LAINE HAD NEVER seen a dead kid, and that was fine with her. She’d dealt with all kinds of grief in her career in education. She’d helped others navigate through loss, and too often found herself looking for the right words, something beyond cliché. Others would be on hand to offer tired wishes when someone needed it. The teachers in her school were generally supportive when a colleague was dealt a blow. They’d be so sorry and offer anything you need, extending a blanket of sentiment.
That was pretty much how she viewed her entire job—she was there to offer something different from everyone else. Didn’t matter if it was to a teacher in crisis or an eighth-grader choosing their high school—Laine thought a guidance counselor should see something the person she was helping couldn’t. Or else, why have her there?
Today she was on her way to the main office, having just received a phone call delivering the kind of news that no one employed in a school district ever wants or expects to get. There’s all kinds of bad news in public schools in the city of Carson. The thirty-five-thousand-student district in Northeast Jersey had too many schools situated in areas that offered a steady stream of bad news to its community. Bullets flew somewhere in Carson nightly. Broken homes were the norm. Guidance counselors in those schools knew bad news.
Laine climbed the basement stairwell up to the first-floor corridor and made her way down to the office. It was late in the school day and most classrooms she passed were preparing children for dismissal. Predictably, she saw a head or two poking out classroom doorways, waiting for anyone with info to pass. So goddamn nosy. It came with the territory in the teaching profession, it seemed.
Yup—Laura Marsh, check. Nora Kleinbach, check. Their heads were the first two she expected—the first-grade tag team, ready with intel on anything you might wonder about in P.S. 12, from which administrator reprimanded which teacher, to who the kindergarten teacher with all the tattoos is screwing. They had it all, Laura and Nora did.
But this was different.
News of a student dying spread from time to time in Carson schools. There were middle- and high-school students already mixed up with gangs, and the district had to deal with occasions where kids found themselves on either end of a gun. Sometimes there was a child who drew the short straw in the Russian roulette game of which corner they walked past at the wrong time. Crossfire injuries happened, too.
But what to say, as a guidance counselor, to that kid’s classmates on those days? Tell them to ask their mommy and daddy to move? Remind their parents they were crazy to live in this shit part of town? If they could afford the rents of the downtown highrises, they would be there.
She could usually find the words. Didn’t mean she wasn’t occasionally taunted by her own mind. But Elaine Waterman prided herself on crisis management. There was a way to handle anything, even dissemination of the news that a little girl had walked between two bad boys with guns up on Ocean Avenue.
But that didn’t happen today. This was worse.
The squawk of police radio preceded Laine’s entrance into the main office. There were two uniformed Carson police officers looking over some papers in a cumulative folder on the clerk’s desk. Emergency vehicles in schools always drew attention from faculty and staff. Police cars sometimes came, as did ambulances. Fire trucks hit the school a few times a year during false alarms. They always drew a crowd.
Earlier in the day, any teacher with a classroom facing out toward the Pre-K trailers would have seen a covered stretcher wheeling out a form too small for that fate into the Hudson County Medical Examiner’s van. Children in Carson schools sometimes died. But rarely—almost never—in the classroom.
The principal’s door was closed so Laine waited at the counter, folding her arms and leaning. The smaller and younger of the officers—looked about eighteen years old for God’s sake—was snapping pictures of paperwork with his iPhone. The tall officer was pointing at certain forms laid out on Xena’s desk, and Officer Babyface was following his orders and photographing them.
Laine caught Xena’s eye and gave her a consolatory smile. Xena, the main office clerk, tried to offer one back, but instead her face twisted into something more like a grimace. Xena was experienced and great at managing the three-ring circus that was the main office in P.S. 12—a school with kindergarten through eighth grade enrollment of just under nine hundred students. But this day was just too much, judging by the condition of Xena’s normally coiffed black hair and flawless makeup application. She was middle-aged and always put together to a tee, right down to her nails, which were always done. She probably got on the phone with Queen Nails on Danforth Avenue the second she spotted a gnat-sized chip. Her business attire was appropriate for not only age but her zaftig figure.
But today she was ruffled, Laine noticed. Her skirt was twisted too much to the left, skewing the zipper line in the back and putting it off center. Her hands had been at her hair, too. She’d clearly been thought the ringer, and that was a disconcerting sight.
The principal’s door opened, and a man walked out of Cynthia Greene’s office wearing a back peacoat and a gold badge dangling from a chain around his neck. A collared shirt and necktie were visible beneath his coat. He smiled and nodded as he passed Laine. She had him by ten years, she figured, but his smile and gaze perhaps a touch too long still felt good.
And why the hell not? Laine hadn’t hit the wall after reaching her forties—she’d hurdled them nicely and been sprinting ever since. A focus on her form had given birth to an obsessiveness with the home treadmill, and no expense was spared on clothing and hair. She was her own calling card in her line of work, and stopping a room went a long way in being taken seriously. People just acted differently in the face of authority paired with elegance. Felt good to be looked at by the boys, even now. But appearing so very put together also just made Laine’s job easier.
She made her way around the counter and to Principal Greene’s door, which was open. She knocked out of politeness but didn’t break stride as she entered the room. No need for formalities—she’d been summoned. Greene was behind her desk, hands folded, somber. She’d hit her eligibility number for retirement some years ago. Everything in her daily facial expressions indicated she had a bag packed, but she’d always told Laine and any of the others who asked that retirement was the enemy. Cynthia Greene often seemed pulled in opposite directions, all day, every day.
Greene nodded at Laine when she entered. Across from the principal’s desk sat a trembling pile of frizzed hair. The heap was named Cristina Perez, and two hours ago a tornado blew into her life.
Laine grabbed the empty chair that sat beside Cristina, probably the detective’s spot a few minutes ago. Laine dragged it right up to Cristina, touching it against the Pre-K teacher’s chair.
“Take your time,” Laine said.
Jesus, so clinical. Must she sound like a guidance counselor? You stifle warmth long enough, play your emotion close to the vest for enough time, maybe you lose it altogether.
Cristina shook her head, still down under her hair, sniffling and not speaking. A tissue box sat on her lap.
“Shitty day,” Laine said. She held herself still, hands on her own lap. She wanted to reach out and touch the young teacher, but it was best to wait for the indicators in situations like this. Who knows how shocking a touch might be to someone who’d discovered one of their four-year-old students dead in their cot.
Laine was short on details. She knew only that Cristina’s students had gone down under their blankets at nap time, just after lunch, and one little boy did not awaken. Laine got a call and kept her distance until the paramedics, police, and medical examiner cleared out. Greene had phoned her moments ago to come up and sit with Cristina, then hash out a plan to meet with the other teachers and students the following day.
“Is there anything we can do for you, Cristina?” Laine asked. “There are people outside of school I could refer you to, if that’s easier.” The teacher kept her head down. “But you can talk with me, too.”
Laine looked to Greene who was already peering at her. They didn’t speak. But Cristina did, barely above a whisper.
“He was hard,” she said.