JUST A CLICK OF A MOUSE


By Pete Riddle



On October 13th, at precisely 4:41 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, backed up against the kitchen counter of her newly-rented two-room apartment, Julie Ann Moleskin became pregnant. She did not particularly enjoy the experience.

Not that she had intended such an outcome to the afternoon's activities, oh no. She had taken every precaution against such an eventuality, including embarking upon a daily regimen of medicinal contraception. Sadly, she had placed her faith in elderly Harvey Pharrell, the proprietor of Pharrell's Phamous Pharmacy, who had forgotten to order a supply of birth control pills (the call for which, in Basackards, Maine, was minimal at best). Harvey had concocted a reasonable facsimile out of acetylsalicylic acid, which he then sold to Julie Ann with barely a twinge of guilt. After all, given the young lady's homely countenance, the prospect of sexual activity on her part seemed extremely remote to eighty-one-year-old Harvey. Had Julie Anne known of all this, of course, she would have been shocked and appalled, and possibly a bit more cautious in her dalliances.

However, she had hedged her bets. Before the assignation, she had confirmed that Claude Teedecker, her partner in crime (for in Basackards, Maine, anyone could tell you that illicit sexual activity was certainly a breach of custom, if not actually the law), was possessed of a certain little foil pouch. The contents of said pouch, Julie Ann believed, could be depended upon to erect a formidable barrier between Claude's seed (such a genteel word, she thought) and her sacrosanct ova. Had she inquired of him, however, she might have discovered that thirty-one-year-old Claude had been carrying that self-same foil pouch in his wallet ever since his junior year in high school, in the vain hope of someday racking up a score.

Finally, Julie Ann had attempted to calculate the passage of days since the end of her last monthly cycle, and determined that the probability of fertility was even less likely than the expectation of integrity in municipal politics. However, to anyone who knew her well, her conclusion was somewhat suspect. She had just begun her first term as teacher of geography at Basackards Middle School, and while she could expound at length upon the boundaries of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland or the geopolitical similarities between Yafran, Libya and Bayanhongor, Mongolia, her mathematical skills consisted of counting on her fingers when trying to balance her checkbook (which to date she had never accomplished successfully).

As to why she did not enjoy the act which led to her becoming great with child, suffice it to say that the entire performance with inexperienced Claude lasted approximately twenty-seven seconds. The condom broke, Harvey Pharrell's aspirin flubbed its assignment, and Julie Ann's eager little egg crossed the finish line right on schedule. Bingo!

Once faced with reality, however, Julie Ann decided to accept her fate with equanimity, and even began to look forward to the prospect of being a mother — a single one, of course. The thought of a continuing alliance, formal or otherwise, with Claude Teedecker held all the attraction of a root canal or an IRS audit. Soon after the New Year dawned, bright with promise, she found herself secretly proud of the growing watermelon-shaped bulge that brazenly announced her indiscretion to the world at large.

And so it came to pass that Julie Ann found herself ensconced in the office of Principal Maurice Hurlbutt just ten minutes after the final bell on a wintry afternoon, the grey skies of which paled by comparison with Hurlbutt's gloomy visage. After a few preliminary inquiries as to the progress of Julie Ann's classes, the Principal got down to business.

"You appear to have gained some weight," he said.

Julie Ann giggled.

"In fact," Hurlbutt continued, "your condition has become apparent to your colleagues, to your students, and by extension, to a number of parents who have contacted me with regard to your present situation. To be brief, I am somewhat concerned."

"There's no reason to worry," Julie Ann said. "My doctor assures me that everything about my pregnancy is absolutely normal, and that I am in perfect health. The baby isn't due until July, so it won't prevent me from finishing out the year."

"Please don't misunderstand me, Ms. Moleskin," Hurlbutt said. "My concern does not relate to your teaching assignments, but to the extent that your condition affects the moral climate of your classroom."

"Forgive me, sir, but whereas this is the 21st century, and in light of various legal decisions affecting workplace environment, human rights, harassment, and the sexual revolution — which, I might add, has been in progress now for half a century..."

"Yes, yes, yes, I know all that," Hurlbutt interrupted, leaning forward over his desk as much as his substantial paunch allowed. "But whereas you and I are the only witnesses to this conversation, and whereas I will deny ever having had this discussion, should you decide to press the issue, I feel it is my duty to recommend that you resign your position in this educational establishment in deference to maintaining an atmosphere in which the innocence of your young charges will not be compromised."

Innocence indeed! In fact, out of all the female students in Julie Ann's various geography classes, stretched across three grade levels, 8.86075 per cent were at that very moment experiencing various symptoms instigated by their own personal fecundity. (For those of you without a calculator or too lazy to consult one, that's seven pregnant teens out of seventy-nine.)

Julie Ann rose to her feet, erect and defiant. "Are you firing me?" she demanded.

"Of course not," Hurlbutt hastened to say, knowing full well the firestorm of adverse publicity, not to mention the lawsuit, that would ensue from such an action. "I am merely suggesting that you might find it in your best interest to absent yourself from the classroom for the remainder of the year, and seek employment in another district henceforth. I will recommend to the Board of Education that your salary be continued until the end of your contract, and..."

"Just a moment!" she bristled. "To begin with, I have no intention of resigning, now or ever. As to the duration of my contract, I expect a renewal at the end of the school year, based upon my performance in the classroom, which, according to my most recent review, is exemplary. And third, should you attempt to terminate me, I assure you I will seek competent legal counsel."

Hurlbutt sat back, contemplating the situation and taking stock of the angry young woman standing before his desk. "Ms. Moleskin, I always, and always will, conduct the business of this office in strict accordance with the law. However, conditions may arise under which you may wish to rethink your intention of staying for the remainder of the year. Not to put too fine a point on it, there are ways to make your stay here uncomfortable, to say the least."

"Are you threatening me?" Julie said.

"And you should also know," Hurlbutt continued, "that under the terms of your contract, which is a yearly one, I have no obligation to renew, regardless of the quality of the performance of your academic duties. In short, should you turn out to be the living embodiment of Mother Teresa, Albert Einstein, and Stephen Hawking, my recommendation to the Board will not change. I have limited patience with moral turpitude."

"Oh, really?" Julie Ann was already halfway to the door. "We'll just have to see about that." She wrenched open the door and exited majestically, boldly preceded down the hallway by the protuberant burden that had prompted the Principal's blatant attempt at intimidation. "Pompous, insufferable prig!" she muttered as she slammed the door behind her.

Hurlbutt sighed. What is the world coming to? he thought. Unwed mothers, gay rights, a Democrat in the White House — could be it's the end of civilization.

A week later, Julie Ann dismissed her last class of the morning at ten minutes before noon and headed for the faculty lounge. It was her habit to sit with several of her colleagues and trade stories about the stupid things their students had said or done that morning. ("Amy Catswallow didn't do her reading assignment for my American Lit class. She said her mother wouldn't let her read anything entitled Moby's Dick.") But she had a stack of assignments to correct, and decided to use her lunch hour more productively. Besides, she didn't want to run into Claude Teedecker, who, with cow eyes and a hangdog look, was becoming an annoying embarrassment in public places.

She retrieved her brown bag lunch from the refrigerator and headed back to her classroom. The day's assignment consisted of a map of North America with outlines of all of the states of the USA and Mexico and the provinces of Canada for the students to identify. The first paper she picked up showed their native state of Maine identified as Mississippi. She sighed wearily and unwrapped her ham-and-cheese-on-whole-wheat, and was halfway through it — so engrossed was she in such displays of creative ignorance — before noting that it tasted like tuna-and-lettuce-on-rye. She inspected the paper bag, emblazoned with the name of Sally MacBovine, the school's Grade Eight math teacher.

Might as well finish it, she thought with a smile. Sally's probably eaten mine by this time.

The hour passed quickly, and Julie Ann was well into her first class of the afternoon ("But Ms. Moleskin, you said an island is entirely surrounded by water, so this little state can't be Rhode Island"), when an approaching siren caused the students to rush to the windows. An Emergency Rescue van careened into the parking lot, and three paramedics swarmed out and raced for the front door. Ten minutes later they emerged bearing Sally MacBovine, her plump carcass strapped to a gurney and an IV bottle pumping a clear liquid into one of her veins.

Principal Hurlbutt called an emergency faculty meeting after school. "I'm sure you'll all be grateful to hear that Ms. MacBovine reached the hospital in time, and is well on the way to recovery. It seems she had a touch of stomach upset from something she ate at lunch."

"That's not what I heard," Albert Mooseheart declared. "My brother was one of the paramedics who picked her up, and he says her breath smelled like bitter almonds. Could have been cyanide poisoning, he said."

Excited conversation broke out, and Hurlbutt called for order. "That's just a rumor. I'm sure there's nothing to it, and I would appreciate it if it goes no farther than this room. That kind of gossip would not be good for the image of our school."

The meeting continued for another ten minutes. Upon securing the promise of everyone present to keep the whole affair under wraps, Hurlbutt dismissed his staff and returned to his office. As he left the auditorium, however, he passed Julie Ann Moleskin, who was somewhat slow in exiting the room due to her excess baggage, and fixed her with an overly-long penetrating glare.

Sally MacBovine resumed her teaching duties within the week, and conditions returned to normal. Her "brush with death" as the local paper reported it — it was the most exciting thing to happen in Basackards since Rosalie Akins' cat Pookie upchucked a nine-inch-long hairball in Parson Abercrombie's hat — was attributed to food poisoning, nothing more, and soon became old news.

One unseasonably warm Friday afternoon a few weeks later, Julie Ann climbed into her venerable Volkswagen Rabbit convertible and, enchanted by an exotic hint of spring in the atmosphere, decided to lower the canvas top to enjoy some fresh air on the short drive home. However, when she turned the key, the starter motor wheezed weakly and panted asthmatically, and the sometimes cranky veteran refused to start. "The battery is probably dead," she announced unnecessarily, as no one was within earshot to hear her. She extracted her cell phone from her handbag and called Peasmutter's Garage to arrange for someone to come out and have a look. She left the key in the ignition and went back inside the building to wait.

Twenty minutes later she looked out into the parking lot to see Irving Peasmutter, the nineteen-year-old son of the garage owner, with his head buried beneath the raised hood of her convertible. He appeared to be rearranging some of the wires that connected various components of the engine together.

Julie Ann left her classroom and hurried outside. Rounding the corner of the school to enter the parking lot, she spotted Irving as he leapt nimbly over the Rabbit's unopened door and dropped gracefully into the driver's seat. He inserted and twisted the key, and the starter motor whirred briefly and brought the engine to life. What happened next seemed almost to occur in slow motion.

A loud bang shattered the peaceful afternoon. The hood of the car buckled upward, and black smoke poured out of the engine compartment. Most spectacularly, the driver's seat, with young Irving Peasmutter aboard, was flung into the air like the ejection capsule of a Navy Banshee fighter jet. Irving and the seat parted company in mid-flight, the boy's legs pin-wheeling in imitation of an Olympian at the start of the hundred-meter dash, the back side of his pants belching fire like the launch of a Cruise Missile. Up and up he rose, straight into the overhanging boughs of an ancient maple tree that grew beside the parking lot. More by instinct and good luck than by skill, Irving clutched with one hand at the nearest limb and managed to hang on, his other hand slapping at his trousers to smother the flames.

A crowd quickly gathered around, and someone produced a ladder and placed it against the tree so that Irving could descend, fortunately with little more than his dignity impaired. Had it not been for her serendipitous lowering of the little car's convertible top, however, Julie Ann knew the outcome of the incident would have been much worse.

Police arrived on the scene presently, and took possession of the vehicle in order to conduct an investigation. The enormity of the explosion suggested something more than a simple gas leak or an electrical malfunction. As the officers supervised a crew loading the car onto a flatbed truck, the crowd began to drift away. Among the last to leave the parking lot was Principal Hurlbutt, and he paused before reentering the school to cast a meaningful glance in Julie Ann's direction.

The explosion was the talk of the school the next morning. Claude Teedecker arrived at Julie Ann's classroom door shortly before the bell rang to signal the end of the homeroom period.

"Are you all right?" Claude asked.

"Why wouldn't I be?" Julie Ann replied tersely. "I wasn't in the car."

"But what happened? You could have been killed. What made it blow up like that?"

"Who knows? Maybe the police will figure it out."

Claude paused, his manner hesitant and unsure. "Julie, I could take care of you, you know. If you'd just let me..."

"Forget it, Claude," Julie Ann said, failing to conceal the contempt she felt for her only-once and barely competent "lover" (Gad, what a misnomer that is!). "It was a big mistake, you and me, one I don't intend to repeat. Now suppose you toddle on back to your biology lab before my class comes in. Go on, get lost."

Teedecker left reluctantly, and Julie Ann gathered up her lesson plans and turned to the chalkboard to begin laying out the day's lecture.

A few days later, as she was walking toward the school at eight-fifteen (she was still in negotiations with her insurance company over a settlement for her eviscerated Rabbit), Julie Ann stepped off a curb into a crosswalk and was grazed by a black SUV with dark-tinted windows that swept around the corner against a red light. The car roared away too quickly for her to catch the license number.

That same afternoon, as she gathered up the results of an unannounced test at the end of her last period class, she noticed a strange and furtive movement behind the telephone that sat on her desk. She lifted the handset, screamed theatrically, and dropped it back in its cradle. She whirled toward the door (okay, plowed — by this late date in her pregnancy, her exits were none too graceful) and steamed down the corridor toward the biology lab. Claude Teedecker was cleaning up the remains of twenty-seven dissected frogs, all of which seemed to be staring at him balefully, wondering what they had ever done to Claude to deserve such a fate.

"One of your pets has escaped," Julie Ann announced as she entered the room.

Claude looked up. "One of my...?"

"If I miscarry, Claude Teedecker, it will be on your conscience. There's a scorpion on my desk, lounging behind the telephone. I could tell by its beady little eyes, it was just waiting for a chance to bite me."

"Scorpions don't bite, they sting," Claude protested. "And what makes you think it's mine?" His eyes flew to a glass terrarium in a far corner with its wire mesh top askew, empty except for a layer of sand on the bottom.

"Duh!" Julie Ann said. "So what are you going to do about it?"

"I'll go collect it. Honestly, I don't know how it could have escaped. It's never happened before."

"Well, it better not happen again." Julie Ann turned on her heel and puffed out of the room, secretly enjoying her one-time paramour's discomfiture.

The following Saturday, as she shopped for food in Basackard's only super market (consisting of a total of three super aisles and one super checkout lane), a heavy-set hoodlum in a woolen ski mask burst in from the loading dock and ordered everyone to lie on the floor. Julie Ann lowered herself gingerly and sprawled amid a cascade of bananas, oranges and peaches dislodged by customers hastening to duck out of sight. The gunman ignored the cash register, seemingly intent on identifying someone among the customers. As he entered the produce aisle where Julie Ann lay prostrate, he slipped on one particularly overripe banana and plummeted face first into a bin of ripe tomatoes. His pistol spun from his outstretched hand and vanished beneath a display rack.

Suddenly weaponless, the fat assailant scrambled awkwardly to his feet and rushed outside, frantically wiping tomato pulp from the eyeholes of his ski mask. He disappeared into some nearby woods before anyone could recover their wits enough to give chase. As her terror receded, Julie Ann got to her feet and considered her situation. Assessing the damage, which consisted of a bruised knee and a scraped elbow, she decided she might be able to turn this incident to her own advantage.

All because I refused to be bullied into resigning, Julie Ann considered. Well, now the time has come for me to bring matters to a head.

She made an appointment to speak with Principal Hurlbutt late on Friday afternoon, just before a long weekend. As the time approached for the meeting, she made her way to the main office to confront her boss. The secretary was just leaving, and the building was otherwise empty, all of the students and faculty glad to be away early for a brief holiday.

"Come in and sit down," Hurlbutt said when Julie Ann appeared at his door. "To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?" he continued sarcastically. He assumed he had the upper hand with this recalcitrant and soon to be ex-employee.

Julie Ann settled her baby-inflated mass into the padded armchair that faced the Principal's desk. "I'm here to tell you that it's over," she began. "Ever since you threatened me when I refused to resign, you've been trying to eliminate me, one way or another. It's going to stop. And what's more, when I'm finished with you, my job here will be secure for as long as I want it."

"Ms. Moleskin, I have no idea what you're talking about," Hurlbutt said.

"I'll spell it out for you, then. First, you poisoned my lunch. It must have been easy to do, since I always write my name on the bag before I put it in the refrigerator. Then you planted a bomb in my car, I don't know how. Only instead of killing me, it blew that poor Peasmutter kid into a tree and set his pants on fire."

Hurlbutt jumped to his feet — well, struggled to get up anyway, given his sizeable girth and weight. "You must be out of your mind! Why would I do something like that?"

"To get rid of me, of course. For my 'moral turpitude,' you said. And when that didn't work, you tried to run me down with that big vehicle of yours when I started across the street."

"What? Where? When?"

"Don't play dumb with me. And I know it was you who planted Teedecker's scorpion on my desk. But last Saturday at the super market, that was the last straw. Did you really think I wouldn't recognize you? You can't hide a stomach as big as yours by wearing a ski mask, you know."

Hurlbutt gaped at her.

"Waving that gun around," she continued, rising from her chair, "scaring all those people half to death. What were you going to do, shoot me right in front of everyone? You'd never have gotten away with it. Well, as I said, it's all over now. I'll be taking this matter to the police as soon as I leave here. I'll tell them everything, the poisoned sandwich, the bomb, the scorpion — and especially the license number of your car that I memorized as you sped away after trying to run me over. You'll be put away for a long time."

Hurlbutt collapsed into his chair, his jaw hanging slackly. "I swear, Ms. Moleskin, I had nothing to do with anything that happened to you."

Julie Ann waited a long beat, her smile growing ever wider. "I know," she said softly.

The Principal stared at her. "What?"

A sly, self-satisfied grin spread across her lips. "I have no intention of letting you take my job away from me. Once you're in prison for attempted murder, I'm sure whoever replaces you will have a more enlightened attitude toward a poor single parent, just trying to make a life for herself and her newborn baby."

"But who did all those things to you?"

"Think about it, Chubby," she said nastily. "I poisoned the sandwich myself, and switched it for Sally's lunch. I also rigged the bomb in my car. Bet you didn't know you can find bomb-making instructions on the internet, did you? Did you? And I made sure the engine wouldn't start for me by loosening a few wires under the hood, something any good mechanic would spot immediately. Someone nearly did run me over in a crosswalk, and I told a lot of people about it right away. Of course, it wasn't your car that did it, but when I talk to the cops I can describe that big Buick of yours perfectly, right down to the license plate number. Oh, and the store robbery? Just a lucky break that the crook was fat, like you. Once I accuse you, everyone in the store will jump on the bandwagon with their own descriptions."

"Ms. Moleskin... Julie Ann... I beg of you, don't do this. I'm so sorry for how I've treated you. Please let me make amends."

Julie Ann turned and headed for the office door. "It's too late now. Maybe next time you'll think twice before accusing someone like me of 'moral turpitude'." She vanished into the outer office and strode off down the hall.

A few moments later, Hurlbutt turned toward the window and watched her cross the parking lot and climb into her bright, shiny new Honda Civic. He was breathing heavily, and mopped the sweat from his face with a handkerchief. He rose from his chair and crossed the room, staring intently as a puff of smoke from the small car's tailpipe showed that Julie Ann had started the engine, intent on her journey to the authorities to terminate his career and send him to prison for life. As she began to pull out of the parking lot, a ball of white-hot flame erupted and blew out all of the car's windows, quickly incinerating everything and everyone inside.

"Yes, Ms. Moleskin," Hurlbutt said softly to himself, "you were very clever to set me up that way, poisoning the sandwich and planting that first bomb. But although you didn't realize it, it really was me that day in the super market. And yes, Julie Ann, I do know one can learn all about building bombs online — with just a click of a mouse."


Pete Riddle is a retired Professor and Director of the School of Music, Acadia University, Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada. He is the author of 23 books, many periodical articles, and numerous musical compositions. He has been married 51 years to his wife Gail, has two children, and three grandchildren.


Copyright 2013 Pete Riddle. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


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