Tick Tick Tick Tick. The seconds hand on the clock seemed to move ever so slowly for every person in the room except for Holly. The clock was running down. She was dreading what would happen to her once the minute hand hit the 12 number on the clock signifying the end of the exam. She was already done with the paper, every answer written out neatly, the important parts of the answer underlined, all details included, everything explained with examples.
Now her fingernails, freshly painted and polished, were rapping the desk in front of her, betraying her boredom, but more importantly betraying her restlessness. She looked around, planning her exit strategy. She knew the entire building superbly well, better than any of her class mates and was for the most part an expert in choosing alternate routes to avoid people, but today she would need the shortest route out of the building. Unfortunately, that was the one route that every student knew and that most would take once the exam was over.
Holly was wearing a black shirt with a skull on the front. It was the same shirt that she had worn for the past three days, in fact it was the shirt that she most often recycled. Her hair was short – perfect boycut- she had finished it during the week secure in the fact that she wouldn't bump into any of her classmates at the parlor because the exams were going on and all of them would be too busy studying. There was still a chance that she might see Roberta, god only knew she saw enough of her around Mrs. Gretchen's place, but she gone the day she overheard that Roberta had other plans for the evening. Along with the black shirt went a pair of jeans that seemed like the obvious fit and she fancied that she looked a bit like Elizabeth Salander from the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, though her taste in body ink was less mythological and more mechanical.
Soon her period of respite was over. In a matter of minutes, it would be back to the normal grind. She looked around at her classmates, some of them engrossed in the task at hand, most of them eager for the last paper to get over. Except for certain places, geeks almost never have it easy. Holly had spent all of her schooling life in J P Wynne, her mother felt that it was the best place for her. There really was no going back to anonymity, Aunt Marie had said and mom had retorted saying that it was late uncle Hank who had made sure of that. That led to a big fight in which Mom and her sister ended up yelling at each other in increasingly high pitched voices and at one point Mom was on the verge of flinging a glass at Aunt Marie when Flynn entered the room unannounced and took hold of the situation. From then on things returned to normal as they always did whenever Flynn was around, and the two sisters made their peace and although it was not an uneasy peace, everyone in the house knew it was only a matter of time before the next quarrel.
Holly always felt safer when her brother was around, but his visits were getting rarer and rarer. His job kept him busy most of the time and it was only during the vacations that she ever saw him around. The good thing was that it wasn't too far away. It was the interregnum that Holly was worried about- the period in between the last exam and the beginning of the break. That and the first few days back after the break.
A small bell sounded. 'Five minutes, left" announced the new teacher, Mr. Pauling. "Don't confuse me with Linus" he had joked on his first day. While Holly was one of the few in her class to actually understand the joke, she couldn't bring herself to find it funny. This was just one of those guys who tried too hard to show that he wasn't like everyone else. Probably, one of those tricks they told teachers to use in order to let them get to know the students a bit better. Just to show how different he was, Mr. Pauling took attendance in reverse order. This meant that Holly was up early in the roll call, her last name being White.
That just might be good news, this time thought Holly. "Two minutes left" quipped Pauling, "start tying up your answer sheets and make sure you've filled in your details." So much for uniqueness. Holly dutifully, checked that her answer sheets were tied (for the fifth time) and then feeling a little relieved that she might get out early before the others, caught up with her began doodling. She drew a little conical flask on her desk and a Bunsen burner below it. It was her favorite doodle, she had drawn it a million times and it now took her only a few seconds to draw, and she had a tattoo of the same on her back. A tattoo that nobody knew about, because if Mom found out about it well…. Holly didn't want to think about what would happen then. Holly signed this doodle, with the ubiquitous H2O, and then stopped for a second to admire her work. She then picked up her answer script again, even though she was sick of looking at the same pages by now.
The bell rand loudly. "Pens down!" boomed Mr. Pauling. It was amazing how people suddenly revealed a different side, Pauling who was on the surface amiable and friendly could suddenly turn into an authority figure with a powerful voice. Indeed, when it was important for his career, when he had to get people to listen to him that was exactly what he did. It made Holly wonder what he was doing in J P Wynne High School, if he was smart enough to pick up those subtle social skills. Then again you could never tell if this was just teaching tips 101 at work again. It was strange how these things worked, but then Holly reminded herself of her father. He had been a brilliant man as well, but he had spent most of his life in this farce of an educational institute as well. Until he found another way to make the money he needed.
Holly handed in her paper. Sure enough, Pauling had decided to do his reverse routine thing again and called out her name "White, Holly". The low murmuring that had just started amongst the students died down as it usually did whenever her name was called out. She had lived with it her entire life and it didn't bother her not in the slightest. She wished it would just stop right there. Unfortunately, it didn't. it never did.
"Holly, White, I repeat Holly White, please report to the Principal's office" boomed an all to familiar voice over the school's speaker system. Holly groaned, inwardly. Great. This was the last thing she needed. Why couldn't she ever catch a break?
Holly handed in her paper, avoided looking around at her classmates and proceeded to the principal's office, where she had been several times before. Several pairs of eyes followed her out of the room, and as soon as she was out the door a cruel sounding cacophony of laughter broke out from within.
Principal Carmen's room was the same as it had been for the past sixteen years. She was one of the exceptions. Almost every staff member wanted to rebrand themself, do something new to wash away the stain from their name. Make it look like they were not associated with JP Wynne. A large number of Carmen's staff had left not only the school but New Mexico itself. Carmen had heard that some of them had even gone as far as portraying that they hardly spent any time in J P Wynne, many of them deleting photographs from their Facebook accounts and other forms of webpage history. It paid to be in a position of power more than the average person knew, mused Carmen to herself. She had gotten several calls in the immediate aftermath of the events, asking her to verify resumes and other credentials. It seemed that her own reputation had gone untarnished – not surprising since she had taken efforts to keep it that way since the day she had arrived in New Mexico. She shuddered at some of the memories, including the one where he tried to make a move on her. At the time she had written it off as a mere mishap, a dying man trying to work through his suffering, but when the truth was revealed – when they came to know everything about him and all that he had done, she was suddenly frightened. She wondered whether she would have maintained her silence if she knew what he was capable of at the time.
She had tried to talk them out of leaving on a couple of occasions. She had held a meeting announcing that it was in everyone's best interest that they continue and the local authorities had cleaned up the mess, allowing the school to function once more as it normally. But those were just the teachers. She had much bigger problems when students starting pulling out. Some of the students had wealthy parents.
But she had persevered through, sticking with the school and never once complaining about those who left. With the passage of time, the reputation that the school had maintained up until its darkest days ultimately paid off and paid off well. After a few years, Carmen found herself being recognized more and more often and the name of J P Wynne soon became common even among the kitty parties that the wives of the wealthy attended. There were elements apart from just the works of the school that were at play of course. Gretchen and Elliot Schwartz, the owners of Gray Matter, already famous for their acts of philanthropy, exceeded their own reputation every year with their massive donations to the public of Albuquerque. J P Wynne High School was among those lucky recipients. The school soon had a gym that made their old one pale by comparison, a new computer lab with state of the art facilities and a brand new auditorium (which meant that the gym didn't have to double up as an auditorium anymore). The alarm system in case of fires and other emergencies was much more reliable – this had the double benefit of providing peace of mind to those parents prone to worrying as well to improve the valuation of the school in general, for even these things can attain the status of luxury good.
Carmen had replaced the staff with a combination of personally teaching a number of the classes as well as hiring out new staff members. Among those that she hired, she made sure that each was well qualified with at least a master's degree in their respective subject.
She counted herself amongst the few people who actually benefitted from the global recession, for otherwise she would not have been lucky enough to find so many new hires in so short a time. There were a variety of candidates that had appeared for the job interview. Some of them over enthusiastic, while others were simply more happy to answer their questions in monotones, their faces blank but nevertheless eager to know how much they would be getting paid. The infusion of cash from Gray Matter was enough to seal the deal for at least the best of the candidates that came for the interviewing process.
Long story short, a decade and a half down the line and Carmen Molina was waiting in her office, not to see a member of her staff, but rather a student. The daughter of the most famous, (notorious may be more apt), person to ever hold employment at J P Wynne, and not surprisingly one of the most talked about students at her school.
Carmen did not know why, but she always found herself a little nervous when ever she held these meetings with Holly. It was not supposed to be like this, when Holly was just a teenager, clearly one with many problems and yet Carmen often felt like she was the one complaining all the time.
If Holly had any problems at school, she certainly never showed it. The fact is that the girl was smart. Really smart. That actually worried people more than anything else. Her father was a highly intelligent man as well. There was a persistent rumor that as legendary DEA agent Hank Schrader's dying words were an admission to Holly's father that he was the smartest man he had ever met in his whole life. That was moments before he was shot in the face by a lunatic white supremacist.
Carmen knew that she should be supportive of Holly, the girl did come from a broken home after all. Her mother was a wreck after all those years of abuse at the hands of that monster. It was rumored that she had tried running into the arms of an old friend who ran his own business, but that the business had run into some trouble of its own and that it had never quite recovered from that. Her aunt and uncle at one time were always close to the family, till his uncle's death. The two sisters now shared a roof. Her brother, the poor boy, shared her father's name but preferred to go by Flynn. It was the name he had assumed even when his father used to work at J P Wynne and that he was apparently called at home. It bothered Carmen that he still stuck with that name, but then there was no doubt in her mind that Flynn was the one holding the family together – whatever was left of it anyway. Flynn was the provider though. On his eighteenth birthday, his benefactors had provided a large sum of money – the exact amount was never disclosed, but it was legitimate (although you could never tell) and this time, there was no shady business that mysteriously appeared out of nowhere. Since there was no need to hide the money or to make it look like it came out of thin air, the public assumed that at least this was legitimate. More than that however, the involvement of the two benefactors were the factor that most dismissed suspicion for they were none other than Gretchen and Elliot Schwartz. Carmen often mused that when looked at it from that angle, the family was still well connected which meant that they were still a powerful family. She wondered whether that was the real reason she paid Holly as much attention as she did. She thought about it and after a point decided that it really didn't matter that much. Who's to say whose motive was exactly what in this muddled up world anyway? She was being the dutiful principal, and if it so happened, that her interaction with Holly should one day lead to her meeting the Schwartz's, then so be it. So few people talked about them in any case.
Following an interview on Charlie Rose, and a column before that in the New York Times, by Andrew Ross Sorkin, their reputation had taken a severe beating. It did not have quite the impact, that people expected it to have and though Grey Matter stock prices experienced a sharp decline, the company had still survived. The Schwartz's were still obnoxiously wealthy and Gretchen's picture was still published on page 3 of the newspaper every party that she attended.
Carmen could not complain, things were the same with JP Wynne. Her outstanding success as an administrator, she told herself, was willingness to acknowledge that the place she ran was not a sacred temple of learning, as a poet might say, but simply a business establishment. A business establishment, like any other, which was run with the motive of profit. That was the simple truth, and she knew it.
There was a knocking at the door. Carmen silently took a deep breath. "Come in" she said, in a voice that she hoped sounded composed and in control.
Holly entered the room and Carmen felt her fist tightening around the pencil she was holding. "Take a seat, please" said Carmen, while deliberately not looking up from where she was working. Holly did as she was told. The chair made a scraping noise as she pulled it back, sat down and then dragged it forward again.
Holly looked around at the room, wondering what it was this time. She got called in here more often than any other student that she knew. Then again, she didn't know too many of the other students. The room looked exactly the same as it had every other time. Holly looked at the desktop, and made a low disapproving noise. It was ignored by Carmen. "Who keeps a desktop anymore?" she wondered, but knew better than to ask. People did all sorts of things all the time, clung on to old habits and past memories. It was quite strange actually, and Holly wondered why there was no subject in the curriculum on psychology. It was of such critical social significance, and the damn idiots didn't want kids to learn it. It didn't matter though, Holly already knew enough of it, to get by. She had spent her time reading Freud and Kahneman, but most of what she had gleaned about the human psyche had not come from any textbook, more from the fact that she noticed people when they thought that she was not looking at them.
"Holly, is there something you want to tell me?" Carmen suddenly quipped, breaking Holly's train of thought. Holly groaned inwardly. This was going to be a long session.