THE PRIZE

 

By Susan Egan

 

 

 

In a small town, nothing bad ever happens.  Ask the local realtor, and that is what she will say is her motto.  Ask any parent why they live in suburbia, and they will say it is for the better schools and for the low crime rate.  But everyone knows this is a false security.  All one has to do is pick up a newspaper or click onto CNN on their iPhone for this theory to be shattered.

Becky Brown lived in Avalon, a bedroom community located north and west of New York City.  Her mother, Victoria, a high-powered lawyer, decided to move the family to the suburbs after her birth because she didn’t want to raise Becky in an urban environment.  Avalon was an idyllic place to live.

Victoria Brown worked late most evenings which meant Becky was left to entertain herself.  Sure she had a nanny, a college student from South Africa, but she was more concerned with her own life to care about Becky.  And this was fine with her.

Becky liked to tell lies.  Or stories.  At first, as her second grade teacher, I didn’t think much of it.  All my kids, as I preferred to call them, were given to some degree of hyperbole.  Something that an adult would see as large would be gigantic, as big as the Empire State Building.  A garter snake became a rattler. I was accustomed to the kids’ way of description.  It showed their sense of wonder, and that was what childhood was all about.  Lies?  I couldn’t encourage them. 

Like many of my pupils, Becky was an only child and seemed to be doted on by her parents.  At a parent-teacher conference, Mrs. Brown confided that Becky was the smartest, the prettiest, and the funniest child in my class.  Not so, but I wasn’t going to tell her otherwise.  I would let her have their fantasy.  I wasn’t going to dissuade her.    

In retrospect, maybe I was wrong and set the scene for what happened.  If I could go back in time, perhaps I would have handled things differently.  But how would I know?  I am not a mother.  I am only the caretaker of their children for seven hours a day.   

 

* * *

 

“What did you bring for everyone to see?”  I said.  For the past hour, I had oohed and aahed over a Barbie doll circa 1980, a volume from the Encyclopedia Britannica, and a Beatles album from the sixties.  It was an Antiques Roadshow for the under ten set.

“It’s my Dad’s,”  Becky said as she held up the item for everyone to see.  “It belonged to him when he was a little boy.  It’s an antique.”

“It’s a gun,”  Mark, the class brain, yelled.  “How cool is that?  Let. Me. See. It.”  He lunged for the gun.

“Oh, no.  Don’t shoot,” one of the girls screamed and then fainted.

The twins, Amelia and Emma, ran towards the lavatory.  Another one vomited. 

“Why don’t you hand that to me, Becky?”  It didn’t appear real, but then I was no expert on guns.  It looked like one of those toy guns that were popular with boys in the fifties.  It was a different world then, and parents thought nothing of giving their sons toy guns to play cowboys and Indians.  It was now so politically incorrect.

“Isn’t it awesome?” she said to the class.

Some nodded. Others turned white.

“Can I see it a little more closely?”  I tried to sound confident but was trying to prevent further panic. 

“Sure,” she said pointing the gun directly at me.  “Did I win today?” The kids all coveted the prize, a Scholastic book club gift card.

“Um.”  There wasn’t a good answer to her question.  Until she had unveiled the gun, I was going to award the card to the kid with the Beatles album.  Now, I was reluctant to give anyone a prize.  “You all realize how dangerous guns are, don’t you?  And that only some people should have them like the police or the army? They protect us from bad people.”

Everyone nodded. 

“Can I borrow this for a little while, Becky?”  The principal was going to have to be informed.

“Who won?” yet another child asked.  

“How about I just declare everyone a winner?” I said, trying to sound upbeat.  I kept a goody bag of trinkets from the dollar store in my drawer in reserve.

The class sighed.  I would be happy if I got the same reaction from the principal.  Somehow I doubted it.
 

 * * *


“You know this is unacceptable behavior and won’t be tolerated,”  Mrs. Callahan, a no-nonsense administrator, said.

I gulped.  “My antiques show and tell has been a win-win for me,” I said.  “It’s brought the shyest kids out of their shells.”

“Sandy Hook, or have you forgotten?”  Mrs. Callahan glared at me as if I were a second grader myself.  “One of the children goes home and tells their mother or father, and I’ll have a P.R. nightmare.  I need this?”

“No, of course not.”  I could feel beads of perspiration rolling down my back.

“Well then, do something about it.”  She turned to her computer screen and hit the space bar.  For starters, you can speak to her parents,” she said signaling my dismissal.  “If the press gets a hold of this—”

“Becky’s mother is—”  What was she?  Delusional?  A narcissist? She spent most of our last conference staring at her reflection in the window and discussing Becky in the most perfunctory manner.  It was so disheartening for a teacher.

“I don’t care what she is.  Rebecca is the issue.”  She reached for her phone.  “Take care of this.”

 

* * *

 

There was nothing worse than telling a parent that their little darling was anything but.  I dreaded calling Mrs. Brown, but I was facing tenure and wasn’t in the mood for crossing the principal.  Jobs in good schools were scarce, and I wasn’t keen on contemplating a career change. I had too much time and money invested in my master’s degree.

“Mrs. Brown?”  I knew I sounded young and unsophisticated, but I didn’t care.  I was on a mission.  Not getting tenure, something I had worked so hard for, loomed in the distance.

“Ms. Brown to you. Who is this?”  As expected, she sounded disinterested.  If I were a client, I supposed I would have her full attention.

“Kate Morgan, Becky’s teacher.  It’s about your daughter.”

“Becky?”  She gasped.  “Is she okay?”

Now that I had her attention, I plowed on.

“Is she ill?  Her nanny said she looked a little feverish this morning.” 

“Ah, no.”  I supposed I should be happy that she thought I also doubled as the school nurse. 

“Thank God, Ms. Morgan.  She hasn’t gotten all her vac—”

“Ms. Brown—” I didn’t need to hear this true confession.  There was a measles epidemic in California, and it was only a matter of weeks or months before it came east.

“You know she talks so lovingly about you at home.” 

It was reassuring considering what I was about to say.  “We have a problem at school, and I was wondering if you could come in.”

“Today?  Now?” Her voice was raspy as if she lived on caffeine and cigarettes. “Do you realize how many appointments I have on my agenda just this morning?”

I could hear mumbling in the background, and I imagined that she was in the midst of a conference.  I am sure it was important, but in the greater scheme of things, so was her child.

“Well, er, yes,” I said, trying not to stutter.

“I can’t just pick up and leave,” she said, her voice raising a few octaves.

Actually, she could if she deemed that her daughter was more important than her job. 

“Mrs. Callahan wants to see you,” I said.  Maybe the principal had more clout than I did. 

“Oh, all right, but you’re going to have to give me an hour.  I just can’t leave my clients in the middle of a sentence.”

I was about to answer, but she had already curtailed the call.

 

* * *

 

After serving fruit and low-fat chocolate milk to my students, I left them in the hands of my aide and hurried to the conference room.  If Mrs. Brown was on her way, she was due in five minutes.

“She better have an explanation.”  The gun dangled from Mrs. Callahan’s fingertips. 

“I am sure she will,” I said.  “At least, I hope she does.”

We sat at the table waiting. 

“So sorry I’m late.  I am in the midst of huge lawsuit that is going to change the lives of millions.  I had to have a subordinate sit in.  I hope he doesn’t wreck—”

“Mrs. Brown,” Mrs. Callahan said.  That stare again. It could melt an iceberg if necessary.

“Sorry.”  She placed her high-end tote, which easily retailed at my bi-weekly salary, on the table. 

“What seems to be the problem?  Can I see Becky?”

“This is the problem.”  Mrs. Callahan slid the gun across the table.  “She says it belongs to your husband.”

“Husband?” Confusion clouded her face, and she blotted her forehead with a tissue. 

“Actually, she called him her dad,” I said.

“Dad?  You mean you don’t know?  I’m not married.  There is no Mr. Brown.”

She was divorced?  Well, that explained Becky’s precociousness.  Any child of divorce I had ever had in class was more mature and obnoxious than my other students. 

“I am so sorry.”  Mrs. Callahan blushed but just for a second. “I just assumed.” 

“It’s fine.  I decided to have Becky on my own when my clock started ticking.   I’m a single mom,” she said.  “Now why is this a problem?” she asked, glancing at her watch, which I imagined was a Rolex.

“Well, Ms. Morgan—” 

I waited for her to say time is money and that she was losing thousands the longer she sat in our conference room.  She didn’t need to do so.  The watch said it all.

“Your daughter brought that gun, saying it belonged to her dad when he was a child,”  I said.  “It caused a panic in the classroom.”

“We have to take guns very seriously,”  Mrs. Callahan said.  “And for obvious reasons.”

“If you’re asking for me to explain, I am sorry to disappoint you.  I don’t have an explanation.  Where she got that is just as much a mystery to me as it is to both of you.”  She picked up the gun and turned it over in her hands.  “I’ve never seen this before, and I am clueless as to where she obtained it.  Maybe the nanny gave it to her?  I don’t think that is even possible.  Perhaps she found it.  She plays in the park nearly every day.”

“Whatever the explanation, I’m afraid we are going to have to take remedial action,” Mrs. Callahan said, as she opened a file on the table and leafed through its pages. 

“She’s seven years old.  What are you going to do?  Suspend her?  She doesn’t realize she has done anything wrong.  It could scar her for life.”

In a way, it was reassuring that she was taking an interest in her daughter.  It was a reversal from our previous conversation. But scarring her for her life? If we didn’t teach our children now, then when would we do so?

“Then, can I count on you to discipline her?” Mrs. Callahan said.  “Her behavior must be addressed before things get out of hand.”

Translation: before the incident hits the press and the PTA demands the principal’s firing.  Mine too.

“Yes, of course.  Now can I take Becky and go?”

 

* * *

 

In a perfect world, Ms. Brown would discipline Becky.  She would ground her for a week or take her iPad away.  I didn’t get the impression that either would occur.  Ms. Brown knew best, and her daughter’s transgression was merely a minor bump on the road to growing up.  It was something that would go down in the Becky Brown annals and was destined to become a family joke in a couple of years. By not addressing this problem, Ms. Brown was empowering her daughter.

In the meantime, I would be the one dealing with the consequences of Becky’s behavior.  Mrs. Callahan had already informed me that I was no longer going to be able to play Mark A. Wahlberg on my version of the Antiques Roadshow.  I would be allowed to hold traditional events like a story hour which meant I would be brushing up on Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House series.  I was so tempted to balk at this new edict but knew any appeal would be fruitless.   Nevertheless, I wasn’t going to let Becky’s issue stifle my creativity.  Story time?  Fine, if that is what Mrs. Callahan wanted, that was what she would get.  It wouldn’t be me telling the stories, however.  

“Everyone, listen up,” I said, clapping my hands. “I have an announcement to make.”

The noise in the room lowered a few decibels.  Announcements were always welcome because it usually heralded something good: extra recess, for example. 

“I am suspending our Antiques Roadshow for awhile.”

There was a collective sigh in the room, but I couldn’t have someone bringing in a Samurai sword or a crossbow next week.

“We are going to do something equally fun instead.”

This grabbed their attention, but then I expected it would.

“Except it’s going to involve a little homework.”  I waited for them to moan, but they were too intrigued to bother.  “Tonight I want you to go home and write a short story about the best place you have ever been.  It can be a sports stadium, Disneyland, or the beach.  It could even be your backyard. Anything at all.”

“Is there going to be a prize?” one of the twins asked.

“Hm.” I hadn’t thought about this.  Maybe I had created a monster by awarding a prize for Roadshow and encouraged my students to bring in something as outlandish as a gun.  “Would you like me to do that?”

It was one of those rhetorical questions.  

“How about a Disney DVD?”

That elicited a round of clapping and a bunch of smiling faces. 

“Then a DVD it is.”

 

* * *


I stood before my class, poised to start reading their stories. My plan was to read all of them, as they were only a paragraph, and then have a vote.  I was all for democracy, especially because I was giving out a prize.  I opened a bottle of water and took a healthy slug. 

The best place I have ever been is Yankee Stadium to see the Red Sox…

The best place I have ever been is to the beach but in Thailand…

And on and on it went. My more affluent students all wrote about their dream vacations in Asia or Europe.  My other students wrote about more modest but equally interesting places.  And then there was Becky’s.

The best place I have ever been is to the lake with my Dad…

Inwardly I groaned.  Our conference with Becky’s mother had done nothing.  Sure, the paragraph didn’t involve a gun, but Becky remained in her fantasy land.

Fishing is my fathers hobby, and he is teaching me how to bait…

Even though I knew this was a lie, I continued to read.  It was the second to last anyway.

“Okay, class, this is how the vote is going to work.”  I explained the finer points of voting and handed out the ballots.  “You can vote for your top four.  The winner will get the DVD.  The others, ribbons.  Then we’ll have our afternoon snack.”

I touched my forehead.  It felt hot, and if I didn’t know any better, I would swear I was coming down with the flu.  While I knew Becky wasn’t hurting anyone but herself, the fact that she chose to live a fantasy troubled me.  It was only a matter of time before someone found out that she didn’t have a father and teased her.  Kids could be cruel, and then it would be my problem. 

I read her story again.  Her description of her father, so life like, bothered me.  He sounded familiar, but then how could this be?  He was supposed to be make-believe, someone she had conjured up.  Did I tell Mrs. Callahan?  I could, but she wasn’t the warm and fuzzy type that I could confide in.  She ordered me to take care of the situation, and I had failed.

“Becky, can you stay for a few minutes after school?”

She held her anorak in one hand and her backpack in the other, ready to bolt.  Maybe she had a play date that she didn’t want to miss.

“Am I in trouble?” 

I wondered if her mother had told her about our sit-down with the principal.  We, rather Mrs. Callahan, had left Becky’s discipline to Ms. Brown, but neither of us had counseled Ms. Brown to speak to her about her fictional father.  Perhaps this was my mistake.

“No, I just want to talk to you about your schoolwork.”

She put her backpack down and came and sat in a chair by my desk.

I picked up my iPad and tapped on the screen and pretended to read her progress report.

“I know I am having trouble with math.  I can ask my father to help me, but sometimes he isn’t around or too busy.”

I sighed.  “Um, Becky, that’s what I want to discuss with you.”  I stared at her school records which I had reviewed months ago.  I had read so many that I didn’t remember the particulars.  A Stephen Brown was listed as Becky’s father.

“I am trying, Miss Morgan.  It is just not my favorite subject.  That’s why I need my dad to help me.”  She hung her head as if she had done something wrong. 

I ran my hand through my hair.  Did I play along, or did I confront Becky? Although I wasn’t a psychologist, what I did know from the classes I took in college, her fantasy dad, if he was one, couldn’t be healthy.       

“Can your mother hire a tutor for you?”  My hands were sweating.  Was Victoria Brown playing a game with us?

“A tutor?  I don’t need one of those,” she said so softly I could barely hear her.

“It’s nothing to be ashamed about.  It would just be for a short time until you are up to speed.  I could even tutor you myself.”

“But my dad—”

“Does your dad live with you?”  I scrolled through her registration form again.  There was no address listed for her father.  “The reason I ask is because he didn’t come to the parents-teacher conference last month.  Your mother told me—”

“He sometimes works in another state.  He is going to be an astronaut.”

If nothing else, Becky could think fast and had an active imagination.  Imagination wasn’t something I was prone to stifle, but when it bordered on lying, I had to act.

“Hm, space.  Do you think you could bring him in to meet me?  A lot of your classmates are interested in space exploration.”

“Well, I don’t know.”  She scratched her head.  “Maybe.  He might be home next week.”  She rose to leave signaling she was done talking.

Maybe I was in the wrong.  Maybe Becky was part of a modern family, and her mother had a boyfriend or another family member who was sitting in as a father figure.  I had a boyfriend with whom I was living.  We weren’t planning to marry.  I had no right to sit in judgment on the Browns’ version of family.

“That would be fine.  Any day next week after school would be perfect.”

 

* * *

 

My next parent-teacher conference wasn’t scheduled for a couple of months.  I hoped Becky would keep her promise of bringing in her father to talk about his job before then, but I wasn’t very optimistic.  She was a seven-year-old, and her promise may have been made to placate me.  In the meantime, I had to ready my class for the state tests and third grade.

“Okay, class, everyone seemed to have enjoyed story time.  So for our next assignment, I want you to all write about what you want to be when you grow up.”

I had given this assignment to another class and had been surprised by the responses I had received.  “There isn’t going to be a specific prize.  Instead, there will be prizes for everyone.”

I was greeted with cheers.

“It is due tomorrow,” I said, dismissing my class.

I was wary about giving this assignment.  If I were teaching the gifted, I would feel otherwise.  Because I had children of all different abilities, I was going to get the gamut:  from actors to lawyers and from construction workers to scientists.  I didn’t want anyone to feel that anyone’s choice of profession was of less value than another.

 

* * *

 

“Shall we start?”  We had already plodded through math and geography.  “It’s time to do something fun.”  I flipped through their assignments which were piled on my desk.  I was going to read them but then decided the children could read their own.

“Becky?”

She stood before the class, poised to start reading.  We had already heard the merits of being a lawyer, nurse, firefighter, and veterinarian.  I gulped as Becky began to read.

My mother is a lawyer and makes a lot of money…

So far, so good, but I dreaded what was coming.

But my dad is an astronaut…

Everyone snapped to attention at the mention of outer space. 

And I want to be like him…

I didn’t say anything.  I let the class question Becky on what she knew about being an astronaut.  Let her have her day in the sun.  Tomorrow was going to be a different story.

“Well done, class,”  I said as I handed out gold stars.  “Everyone is going to get an A.  Class is dismissed.  Becky, do you have a second?”

“I have to get home.  My dad—”

“Fine.”  But it wasn’t.  Exasperated, I waved her away and watched as my students donned their jackets and sped for the door.  I was just going to finish my lesson plan for Monday before I left for home.  My boyfriend had promised me a home cooked Italian meal this evening and perhaps a movie.

“Kate, is that you?” 

I could hear the radio blaring and see the banner scrolling at the bottom of the television as I hung my jacket in the closet.  The aroma of tomato sauce, emanating from the kitchen, caused my mouth to water.  I hardly had time to eat this afternoon.

“What’s going on?”

“Breaking news,” Patrick answered and pointed to the screen.  “A murder-suicide, or so the police think.”

“Really?  In Avalon?”  I sat down at the edge of the couch and waited for the commentator to continue.  “What hap—”  I didn’t get the chance to finish my thought before a photo flashed on the screen.

“You’re turning blue.  Are you okay?”  He sat down beside me and draped his arm around my shoulder.

“Becky?”  My stomach somersaulted. 

“Who?”

I waved Patrick off and listened while the anchor droned on about the evils of the gun culture.  “Rebecca Brown, a second grader at Avalon Elementary, walked into her house this afternoon during an argument between—”

I stared at Becky’s smiling face and gasped.

“Is she one of your students?”

But Patrick’s voice seemed to be coming from a tunnel.  I gripped the armrests of the chair to steady myself.

“Stephen Brown, a former aerospace engineer,” the anchor said as another photo flashed on the screen, “was paroled from state prison last week.”

No wonder his description had bothered me.  His photo had been plastered all over the newspaper a few years ago when he was arrested for shooting his supervisor at his job.

“She was telling the truth all along,” I said.  “Is she—”

“Dead?”  Patrick nodded.  “Shot when she ran to greet her father.”




Native New Yorker, Susan Egan is a government prosecutor. When not in the courtroom, she can be found in one of several places: at the ballet, behind her computer typing a story, or at the Pilates studio. Susan counts Nancy Drew as her hero and Shirley Jackson as the greatest writer to ever walk the earth.
Copyright 2017 Susan Egan. 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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