Chapter 25

1

The campaign didn’t end Saturday night. Kate and Sunny kept calling to keep Susan on track, and while the one call she really wanted was from Pam, she had to settle for Dan, who followed up with a visit on Sunday to study her contract.

His legal opinion? “They can’t dismiss you. You haven’t violated anything in your contract, and this contract runs for another year. Correlli may choose not to renew it then, but if they try to fire you now, you can sue.”

Susan wouldn’t sue. Lawsuits were often messy, expensive, and public. It would be bad for her and bad for the town. She still believed resignation might be the compassionate alternative.

Rick disagreed. Once the school week began, he e-mailed from home. A good principal loves her students. She finishes what she begins. A good principal doesn’t let outside forces erode her work. And Lily joined up with her dad. A good mother fights. A good mother wants her daughter to have choices.

How fair was that? Not fair at all, but as the school board meeting neared, Susan held the words close.

***

She refused to wear black. Black might be professional, but it was the color of death. Her father had died; her grandson might die; her professional dreams might be shot to smithereens. But she was a color person, and, while moderation was in order, she couldn’t squelch her personality. On that score, she and Rick had strategized. She wouldn’t be confrontational; quiet dignity was better. If board members wanted to vent, she would hear them out, but she wouldn’t be stepped on.

She decided on blue-navy slacks with a lighter, bolder sweater and scarf. She covered her freckles with makeup, and nixed hoop earrings for studs. Granted, the studs were bright red, but they were small-a gift from Lily at her last birthday, and precious for that.

All seven members were present when she arrived at the town hall. Creatures of habit, they sat in their usual places. Pam had laughed about this once, though she, too, was in her usual place now. Likewise, Phil occupied a chair by the wall.

Though the room was quiet, an air of tension suggested there had already been talk. Eyes touched hers only briefly. Susan caught Pam’s-please, help me out-before Pam turned to the chairwoman.

“You know why we’ve asked you to come,” Hillary began.

“I’m not entirely sure,” Susan confessed. “I know you’re upset by the media-“

“Upset is an understatement,” one of the men said.

“We’re appalled.”

“That may be so, Mr. Morgan,” scolded Hillary, sounding weary, “but we live in the twenty-first century. I don’t like the media being here, either, but this is how things work nowadays.”

“Are you saying I’m old?” Carl asked in his gravelly voice. “If that’s so, then old is good. We didn’t have these kinds of crises when my children were in school.”

“We should have acted sooner,” someone else said.

“Dr. Correlli should have acted soon-ah,” corrected Duncan Haith.

There, in a nutshell, was Susan’s problem. Phil’s reluctance to force her out was likely what had brought this meeting about. If a majority of the board shared Duncan’s frustration, Phil would have no choice but to fire her. Letting her hear the board’s anger firsthand would absolve him of guilt.

To his credit, Phil said, “We have acted. Within the school, things are under control. We weren’t the ones who invited the press.”

Carl’s bushy brows rose. “No?”

“They came for Henry’s funeral,” Pam said. “They were supposed to leave after that.”

“Someone tipped them off.”

“Who?”

When several members eyed Susan, she was startled. “I’m the last person who would want reporters around.”

“Then who would?” Carl asked.

Here was her first challenge. “I was told it was the head of the Chamber of Commerce.”

“Who said that?” Neal Lombard asked, his moon face benign.

“The producer from NBC who showed up at my door. We were able to kill that story, but someone must have called other media.”

“That producer lied,” Neal stated quietly.

The members returned to Susan, who knew enough not to call Neal a liar.

Duncan used the standoff to say, “Well, you did get the NBC story killed. Did the fellow you’re living with handle that?”

Susan smiled curiously. This was the second challenge. “That fellow’s my daughter’s father. We’ve had a medical emergency with Lily and her baby. He’s here to help.”

“Living with you.”

Hillary sighed. “Duncan. His being there makes sense. These aren’t the dark ages.”

“Now that,” the man said, “is the attitude that gets us in trouble. I believe in marriage”-he held up a gnarled hand-“but fine, not everyone does. Susan Tate could live with a gorilla, for all I care, if she weren’t principal of our high school.”

All eyes turned to Susan, who remembered Dan’s legal opinion. “Please explain your concern. Am I not carrying out my job?” She directed her appeal to Pam, who was in the unique position of having a child in the high school. Tell them, she begged.

But Carl Morgan spoke first. “The issue is morals. It’s been one offense after another.”

Susan couldn’t be still. There was no morals clause in her contract. “I don’t see the offenses. I’m successfully doing the job I was hired to do.”

“You weren’t here when a troubled student cheated for the third time,” Neal volunteered. The fact that he knew about Michael Murray spoke of Evan Brewer’s loose tongue.

“My father died,” she said. “My contract allows five days off for a death. I took three.”

“But now there’s a problem with your daughter’s baby,” Duncan said kindly. “Wouldn’t you be better off staying home to take care of her? Isn’t that what a good mother would do?”

Susan was one step ahead. “I considered it, but my daughter’s doctor vetoed the idea. He wants Lily at school and says my hovering would be counterproductive. He wants her living normally. She has exams. He wants her to take them.”

“If you wanted to take time off, Evan Brewer could fill in,” offered Neal, clearly retaliating for Susan having named him the snitch. “He has experience heading a school.”

“You and Evan are old friends,” Pam pointed out.

“Like you and Susan,” Neal said with a smile.

“That’s why I haven’t spoken out.”

Neal either didn’t get the message or ignored it. “But this would be a practical fix. Evan is already in place.”

When the board members turned to Susan, she looked at Phil. Naming a successor, whether interim or permanent, was his job.

“Evan doesn’t share our philosophy,” he said. He sounded begrudging, but Susan didn’t care. At least he had told the truth.

“He headed a school,” Neal pointed out.

Phil dismissed Evan with a wave. “If he hadn’t resigned, he would have been fired. My concern isn’t Evan. It’s our students.”

“Correct,” said one.

And another, “It’s a grave concern.”

“That’s why Ms. Tate is here,” said a third.

Susan waited for more. When it didn’t come, she murmured, “So the purpose of this meeting is…?”

“To convince us you ought to stay,” Hillary said. “Perhaps you’d share your latest thoughts on how to best help our students at this time.”

“My thoughts come from the faculty,” Susan replied. “They say what we’re already doing is working. Our kids are discussing the issues. They’re understanding them and moving on.”

“That’s not the sense of the town,” said Duncan.

“Didn’t you read the Gazette?”

“Bet you thought you had more friends than that,” Neal gloated.

Susan didn’t respond. She was grateful when Pam said, “Most of those letters were unsigned.”

“But they were not in support of Susan,” Thomas Zimmerman remarked.

Harold LaPierre, the library director, had been sitting quietly with his hands folded. The overhead lights reflected on his bare scalp, spotlighting him when he spoke. “For all we know, they were written by the same person.”

“There’s a cynical view.”

“Can’t rule it out,” Harold said.

Duncan grunted. “Well, we have to do somethin’. You all know it, but won’t say it, so I will. There’s two choices. Ms. Tate can take a leave. Or she can be dismissed.”

Susan had feared it would come to this. “Please tell me the grounds.”

There was a silence among the board. She guessed they were caught up by the word grounds. Finally, pushing up his glasses, the Realtor said, “Would you sue us if we demand your resignation?”

“I haven’t thought that far, Mr. Zimmerman. I love my job, and I do it well. I do not want to resign.”

“What if we pay you full salary to take a leave until the end of the school year?” rasped Carl Morgan.

“It’s not about money,” she said. “It’s about the kids.”

“What about the sentiment of the town? Our citizens want you gone.”

“Do they?” she asked respectfully. “I agree with Mr. LaPierre. I’m not convinced that what we see in the Gazette is a fair representation of town sentiment.”

Pam spoke with sudden enthusiasm. “That’s an easy problem to solve. What if we held an open meeting of the board? Parents could tell us directly what they think.”

“An open meeting is the perfect solution,” Pam told Tanner and Abby over dinner. “We were at a stalemate. As soon as I made the sug gestion, everyone leaped at it. I mean, I was dying, not knowing what to say. I could feel Susan looking at me, wanting me to stick up for her, and I really wanted to do that, but how could I? I mean, this whole thing just looks so bad!”

“That sometimes determines it,” Tanner murmured around a piece of flank steak.

“Determines what?” Abby asked. Sullen, she hadn’t touched her food.

Tanner finished chewing. “The outcome. If the town thinks something’s bad, it’s bad.”

“Susan doesn’t see that,” Pam complained, adding more mashed potato to her husband’s plate, knowing he could eat all that and more without gaining a pound. “She was polite, but she didn’t give an inch. She kept saying she was doing her job.”

“Isn’t she?” Abby asked, watchful now.

“Technically, yes. But what’s happened here goes beyond her job.”

“It shouldn’t,” the girl said.

“That’s the way it is. You aren’t eating, Ab. Is the meat too well done?”

“It’s fine. I’m just upset.”

Pam, on the other hand, was relieved. “An open meeting will be better for Susan.” To Tanner, she said, “We really need to get new blood on the board. How can someone like me speak up, when I’m overpowered by men twice my age. They have no idea what’s going on in the schools.”

“They’ve given a lot to the town,” Tanner advised. “You can’t just turn around and kick them out.”

“I understand that. But if they faced opposition, they might decide to retire. The key is getting some of our parents to run. There are a few who’d be good. I’ll talk with them.”

“About Susan?” Abby asked.

“About running for school board. Convincing those men of anything new is like hitting a brick wall.”

“Did you try? Susan’s your friend. You should be defending her.”

“I have to be impartial.”

“No, you don’t,” Abby said sharply. “You have to be loyal. She’s your friend and business partner, and she’s done nothing wrong.”

“It isn’t as simple as that,” Tanner put in, but Abby wasn’t done with Pam. She seemed to be picking up steam.

“Did you tell those men they were wrong, Mom? Did you tell them Susan isn’t responsible for things she didn’t do?”

“But she is responsible,” Tanner said. “That’s what it means to hold a position of authority.”

Pam didn’t think Abby heard her father, the look on her face was so intense. “She’s your friend, Mom. You told me to reach out to Lily, but you’re not reaching out to Susan. Maybe if you come right out and publicly say you’re on Susan’s side, this wouldn’t be so bad. You’re a Perry. Doesn’t that put you in a position of authority, too?”

“This is my fault?” Pam asked in dismay.

“No. It’s not,” came Tanner’s quiet voice. “It’s the fault of three girls who made a really dumb decision.”

Abby was suddenly woeful. “It wasn’t all their fault.”

“What do you mean?” her father asked.

Given the look of misery on her daughter’s face, Pam’s heart sank. She knew the answer. There had been one too many hints from Susan, Sunny, and Kate, and one too many doubts of her own.

“It was my idea,” Abby said.

“What was?” Tanner asked.

“Getting pregnant,” Pam answered with chagrin. “Oh, Abby. How many times did I ask? You denied it again and again.”

The girl had tears in her eyes. “I didn’t think it would get to this. But now Lily has a baby that is sick, and you all are saying Susan is a bad mother. She didn’t have anything to do with Lily getting pregnant. It was my idea.”

Pam tried to see Tanner’s reaction, but his eyes were fixed on Abby. “What are you talking about?”

“I was pregnant,” she wailed. “It was Michael’s, and it was an accident.”

“You were pregnant?” He glanced at Pam. “Did you know this?”

Stunned, she could only shake her head.

“No one knew, Dad. I didn’t even tell Lily, Mary Kate, and Jess, that’s how lousy a friend I was. I just said it would be totally awesome if we all had babies together, and they bought it. Only they got pregnant, and then I miscarried-“

“When? Did you know about this, Pam? What doctor didn’t tell us?”

“No doctor,” Abby cried. “I tested positive for six weeks, then had this really heavy disgusting period, and the tests after that showed negative.”

Pam knew about disgusting periods. She remembered a pain that went beyond the physical, felt it even now.

But Abby was hurrying on. “I tried again and kept trying, but I’m not pregnant. Something’s wrong with me.”

Tanner looked bewildered. “You kept trying? This doesn’t make sense.”

“Not to you! You don’t have to worry about friends. I do!”

“You do not. You’re a Perry.”

“Like that guarantees happiness?” the girl asked, pushing back from the table and rising to her full Perry height. “Like it guarantees I’ll grow old with three friends I love? Like it guarantees I’ll ever be able to have a baby? You don’t understand. These things matter!” She ran from the room.

Tanner stared after her before turning to Pam. He looked dazed. “I don’t understand. I asked you to talk with her.”

Pam stood with her arms circling her middle. She was torn apart inside, hearing something’s wrong with me and wanting to go to Abby, but needing to pacify Tanner first. “I asked. She denied. What more could I do?”

“You should have known.”

Pam was slow in answering. She kept hearing Tanner tell Abby that she was a Perry, but now Pam wondered who she was. Arguably, she had more in common with Susan, Sunny, and Kate than with her husband’s family. When she was at the barn, she wasn’t just a Perry. She was someone who contributed.

These friends made her a better person. She wondered if that was the appeal.

If so, she had let them down. “They have every right to hate me.”

“Who?”

“Susan, Sunny, and Kate. They knew Abby was involved. But they were too loyal to say anything.”

“Loyal, or cowardly?”

“Loyal, Tanner,” Pam said, offended. “Loyal to me, loyal to Abby-and now, I need to be there for Susan when she needs help.”

He retreated. “Fine. But even if Abby suggested the pact to the others, she didn’t hold a gun to their heads.”

“But she was part of it. If things had gone as planned, the pact would have involved four girls, and the press would be at our door. Are we any less guilty than Susan?”

“Susan’s the principal of the high school.”

“And you’re the CEO of Perry and Cass.”

“It’s different. I’m a man. You’re the mother. You should have known.”

He was wrong. She didn’t often think it. But right now he was dead wrong, a Perry through and through.

She was not. Suddenly that didn’t seem so bad.

“I should have known?” she asked softly. “Like Susan should have known what Lily was planning? It doesn’t work that way.”

“Abby’s a good girl.”

“So are Lily, Mary Kate, and Jess. And Susan is the best mother I know.”

“She’s still the principal.”

“And you’re still a Perry,” Pam said, irritated. “That means more responsibility, and right now it means helping someone who’s being made to pay for the… the priggishness of this town.”

Tanner was silent, then curious. “Do you really think that?”

“I do,” she said, realizing it was true. “Susan’s being scapegoated. And that’s wrong. You have to put your support behind her.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not? Because Perrys don’t get dirty? Is it all about appearance? What about going out on a limb for a friend when you know it’s the right thing to do?” His silence goaded her on. “Think about it, Tanner. There but for the grace of God go I. Don’t you find that humbling?” She certainly did.

Tanner had risen. He rubbed the back of his neck, then said, “I can’t announce to the world that my daughter caused this fiasco. It’s bad enough that I know it.”

Pam nodded angrily. “It’s not the first time a Perry’s been knocked up.” He winced at the phrase, but she didn’t care. “You ought to be grateful. In Abby’s case, the problem solved itself, so we’re in the clear. Your job’s not on the line. But Susan’s is. You need to help.”

He shook his head. “Not my place.”

Pam disagreed. “It is totally your place. If this isn’t a case that cries out for responsibility, I don’t know what is. If not for this, what do you stand for?” she cried in dismay and went upstairs to Abby.

Abby was tall, but her room was much taller, making her seem small and vulnerable as she sat cross-legged on the window seat. Her eyes were wet with tears.

Settling beside her, Pam took her hand. “Talk to me, Abby.”

“I’m a terrible person.”

“Me, too. So talk to me.”

Abby must have been brimming with a need for catharsis, because the words came in a rush. “I didn’t plan to get pregnant, I swear I didn’t. I knew it would be the worst thing for a Perry, because they do expect more from us, and you’d both have hated me for it. I thought about getting an abortion, but I didn’t know where to start looking, and I realized that if that got out, it’d be even worse. So then I thought it wouldn’t be so bad if there was a good reason I was pregnant. So I suggested the pact to the others, and they bought it, and for a little while, it was really neat. I mean, I could be a good mother. I would love to focus on a baby. But this has been so bad, Mom. Look at what’s happening to Susan. And to Lily’s baby? Who’d have imagined that? If I could do it over again, I wouldn’t have suggested a pact-and I would never have outed my friends. But now the joke’s on me. What if I never have a baby?”

Pam said the only things she could. “I had you, didn’t I?” Then, “You’ll have your baby.” Then, “Maybe this just isn’t the right time.”

“But I wanted to do it with them.”

“That is not a reason to have a child at this age. For now, you can give them support.”

“Will you?”

“Yes.” Pam hadn’t thought it through, but it wasn’t rocket science. Tanner could do what he wanted, but so could she. “I’ll lobby for Susan. I’ll get everyone who loves her to the meeting. You could do the same with the kids. Have them talk to their parents.”

“Like my word matters? Everyone knows we’re on the outs.”

“Tell them Susan’s the best principal they’ve ever had. Tell them they need to keep it that way.” Pam paused, heart aching. Knowing of Abby’s involvement, she felt more responsible. “You could also tell Lily you’re rooting for her baby.”

“She wouldn’t listen,” Abby murmured, pulling up her knees. She still looked miserable, but at least she wasn’t crying. “They hate me now.”

Pam thought of Susan, Sunny, and Kate. “They probably hate me, too.”

“I loved being with them.”

“Me, too.” The need to belong-the basis of pact behavior-was wrong in this case, but Pam understood its power.

“Why don’t we fit in?” Abby asked.

“Maybe because we haven’t been… relevant,” said Pam. “We have to make ourselves relevant.” She had an idea. “Like with knitting. I’ll pull strings to get an awesome catalogue promotion, and if your uncle Cliff balks, I’ll threaten to shut down PC Wool.”

Abby looked up. “You wouldn’t shut it down.”

“Not, but I’d threaten to if he doesn’t give me the space I want, and we both know how profitable PC Wool is. So,” Pam said, “we have to make sure we have enough finished samples. Kate will tell me what’s already done, but you and I can knit more. Susan suggested I make a shawl. I can do that. You can knit gloves. Gloves are very in.”

“I can’t knit gloves. I’ve never knitted gloves.”

“You’ve done socks.”

“No one sees mistakes in socks. They see every last one in gloves.”

“Then you’ll have to make sure there are none.” Pam had another idea. “Cashmere,” she breathed reverently. “The woman we visited was good, and she has stock. What if Kate could dye up a batch really fast? Would you do a pair of gloves then?”

Abby looked tempted. “Cashmere? I could try.”

“Trying isn’t good enough. We both have to do it. We could make a pact, the two of us. No more trying. Just doing. What do you think?”

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