A vicious spasm tore into Garrett Faulkner’s lower back, dropping him to his knees and pulling his mouth wide in a rictus of pain. Sweat poured from his body as Garrett drew quick, shallow breaths and waited for the spasm to subside.
He had been stocking cans of vegetables on aisle three for the past half hour. Bending, kneeling, reaching, lifting, not the kind of work befitting a fifty one year old man who had spent the first twenty five years of his professional career as a high school history teacher.
Garrett grabbed the vegetable cart and struggled to his feet. One of the assistant managers waved him over.
“I’ve got two more carts in the back when you finish this one,” he said. “You can go to lunch when that’s done.”
Garrett swallowed an obscene retort and nodded. He resumed stocking shelves, thoroughly enraged at the assistant manager and his own inability to keep up with the job. His co-worker, thirty years younger than Garrett, was already working on his second cart.
Garrett was sitting on the floor stocking the final cans from his cart on the bottom shelf.
“Excuse me,” a female voice said. “Can you help me? I’m in a hurry.”
Garrett winced as he forced himself to stand. An enormously obese woman with a full cart of groceries waited impatiently. Garrett flashed an angry smile.
“Need some help?” he asked.
“Yes,” the woman replied warily. “I….”
“Be right back,” Garrett interrupted, hurrying away.
A moment later he returned with an armload of cookies, snack cakes, and donuts. He tossed them in the woman’s shopping cart with a malicious sneer.
“What is wrong with you?” the woman shrieked. “Are you crazy? This isn’t what I want.”
“You sure about that?” Garrett replied, winking grotesquely at the woman.
A crowd had begun to gather, including the store manager. Less than a minute later Garrett’s workday and career as a grocery stock clerk were over.
Garrett stumbled from the store, found his car, and roared out of the parking lot. His heart was pounding as the poison of failure poured through his system. He wondered if he was having an out-of-body experience as he looked down on this lunatic who was posing as Garrett Faulkner.
Garrett noticed a fast food restaurant and pulled into the drive-thru lane. He felt empty and sick with shame. He placed his order, speaking in a slow, thick voice, as though he had spent the morning drinking or having a stroke.
Garrett ate while he drove, brutally shoving the food into his mouth. The meal filled his belly but left the rest of him starving. A moment later he pulled off the road, rolled out of the car, and regurgitated his lunch.
It was Will Tucker’s fault. The boy genius-I.Q. of 169, eidetic memory, and a savant on the subject of history, of all things. Will had been a student in Garrett’s Advanced Placement American History class and had quickly distinguished himself by ignoring every test and exam that Garrett gave. He simply signed his name at the bottom of the page and returned it to Garrett as soon as he handed it out.
Garrett had angrily confronted his indifferent student at the end of the semester, demanding an explanation for his behavior. Will had simply shrugged and cited his disappointment in the teacher’s dry, uninspired lectures. Garrett had lost his temper and challenged the boy to a competitive oral history exam administered by the school principal and two of his colleagues.
Although Garrett demonstrated a thorough knowledge of his subject, the competition was not even close. The principal immediately adjusted Will Tucker’s failing grade in the class and one week later informed Garrett that his teaching contract would not be renewed.
It was just as well. He could not have been an effective teacher when the whole school new that a student he had failed was more qualified than Garrett to teach his class. Not that he had ever been an effective teacher, despite his twenty five years of experience.
Oh please, Garrett. You had one year of experience that you repeated twenty four times. You never expanded your knowledge base, never sought new experiences, never really developed your teaching skills and methods. It’s a wonder you lasted twenty five years.
Garrett wandered over to the picnic table and sat down, trying to dispel his inner voice that was speaking way too much truth. It had been a surprisingly fast descent once he lost his job. Garrett had sent his resume to every school within a fifty mile radius. There had been no replies, nobody willing to consider an applicant who had somehow managed to lose his job after a quarter century of teaching. He had expanded his search to include a number of professional openings that required a college degree. Again, there had been no replies. Apparently, hiring managers were not looking for a fifty year old man with two history degrees and no work experience beyond the classroom. From there, he had worked a series of minimum wage jobs, failing spectacularly at each one.
He had lost his house, then his apartment, and, now, here he was. In a way it was liberating, knowing there was no longer any reason to try. Garrett would have all the time in the world to turn his attention to young Mr. Tucker. His former student was set to graduate in less than a week and Garrett had one more lesson to teach.
Will Tucker was feeling good. He had just breezed through his final exam and was meeting some friends to celebrate.
“Hi, Will,” a voice called.
Will looked up in surprise. Garrett Faulkner was sitting on the steps leading into Will’s dormitory.
“Mr. Faulkner?” Will asked.
The man on the steps had not seen a razor or a bar of soap in some time. His clothes were badly rumpled and ripped in several places.
Garrett Faulkner nodded enthusiastically.
“I thought I would stop by and congratulate you on your graduation,” he said.
“Thanks,” Will replied, unnerved by the man’s appearance.
“Can I offer you some lunch?” Faulkner asked, extending a half empty two liter bottle of Mountain Dew and a large back of chocolate chip cookies.
“No thanks, Mr. Faulkner,” Will replied. “Uh, how have you been?”
“Great Will, just great,” Garrett replied, grinning broadly. “I’m retired now, so I’ve had to cut back a bit. I’m living in a tent out at the campground on Route 3.”
Will’s mouth dropped open.
“How do you live?” he asked.
“Oh, I manage, between my welfare benefits and some panhandling,” Faulkner replied. “It’s not like I have a wife or family to support,” he added, laughing a little wildly. “But enough about me. What are your plans after graduation?”
“Graduate school,” Will replied. “I’ll be going to the University of Virginia in September.”
“Well, that’s great, Will,” Faulkner said, getting to his feet. “Time for me to go. I’ve got some begging to do.”
Will watched his former teacher leave and then trudged upstairs to his room. The joy had just gone out of the day.
The campus was packed. Garrett was careful to park on a distant side street. Today was not the day to call attention to himself or the ancient junker he was driving. As expected, security was tight and the area for graduating students and their families was clearly marked and closely controlled.
Garrett had shaved, showered, and dressed in a coat and tie for the occasion. He was, after all, a teacher himself. The university deans and professors on the stage were his peers. It felt good to be back in an academic environment.
The morning was warm and Garrett was already beginning to sweat. He wandered over to a group of large oak trees where a number of other people were standing in the welcome shade. It was an ideal spot, providing an unobstructed view of the stage. Even better, it would be easy to slip away without attracting attention.
Garrett glanced at his graduation program. He had marked the place in his program when he would need to leave. Timing was everything. If he left too soon or too late it could ruin everything. He had done a practice run the day before and knew exactly how long it would take to reach Will’s room on the third floor.
Garrett was surprised to find himself enjoying the ceremony, even the dull, formulaic speeches from members of the faculty. He felt perfectly calm.
No reason to feel nervous when you have nothing left to lose, right Garrett? he reflected.
Garrett checked his program as the final speaker concluded his remarks. It was time for him to go. He was reluctant to leave. For the first time in months he was clean, shaven, well dressed, and surrounded by other educated people. He felt almost human.
The dean was beginning to call names and hand out diplomas as Garrett made his departure. The rest of the campus was deserted. The only person Garrett saw was a man about his age slowly circling the track next to the dormitory. He looked miserable.
Garrett climbed the steps to the third floor and entered the room. A loud roar carried across the campus. Garrett smiled. It would all be over soon.
The dormitory door slammed open and the sounds of raucous laughter and pounding footsteps bounced off the stairwell. A moment later a flushed Will Tucker burst through the door to his room and stopped in his tracks.
“Mr. Faulkner,” he managed in a thin voice.
“Hi, Will,” Faulkner replied. “Congratulations, again. I enjoyed the ceremony.”
“What….” Will began.
“I guess I’m still a teacher at heart,” Garrett said, smiling benevolently. “I couldn’t resist one final lesson for my prize student before he goes on to bigger and better things.”
“You know, Will, sometimes our actions have unintended consequences,” Garrett continued. “Take me, for example. I’ve gone from being a respected educator to a person with no reason at all to live.”
Will said nothing.
“I have you to thank for that, Will,” Faulkner added.
Will stood frozen with fear as Faulkner produced a pistol and wrapped a finger lovingly around the trigger.
“Goodbye, Will,” Garrett whispered.
“Hey, Will, are you coming or not?” a voice yelled.
Faulkner hesitated as Talcott Sweeney, Will’s roommate and best friend, stormed into the room. Sweeney took one look at the situation, crossed the room in two giant strides, and decked Garrett Faulkner with a thundering right cross.
“Who is this nutcase, Will?” Sweeney asked, gasping for air as adrenaline raced through his body.
“A former teacher,” Will replied, stunned by what had just happened.
“We need to call 911 to report this,” Sweeney said.
“Ask for an ambulance. Just say an agitated homeless person wandered into our room and we had to subdue him.”
Talcott Sweeney stared in disbelief at his roommate.
“Are you crazy, Will? This guy just tried to kill you.”
Will shook his head.
“I don’t think so, Tal. I think he planned to kill himself and wanted me to see it.”
“Why would you even take a chance on what this person was thinking?” Sweeney persisted.
Will retrieved the gun and shrugged.
“I’ll be back in a few minutes to help you babysit until the ambulance arrives.”
Will descended the stairs and slipped out the back door. He quickly disappeared into the woods that sloped down to a large lake that nobody ever visited.
Will reached the lake and took a moment to unload the bullets from the gun. Surprise quickly gave way to relief as he stared at the empty magazine. Faulkner’s performance had been nothing more than an empty threat, a pathetic cry for help.
Will hurled the gun into the lake and watched it sink below the surface. Garrett Faulkner would get the help he needed and they could both go on with their lives.
Faulkner was conscious and alert by the time the ambulance arrived. He smiled gently at Will and shook hands with Sweeney as the EMT’s loaded him into the vehicle. It was good to be among friends.
Garrett felt a sting as the technician administered an injection. He suddenly felt like sleeping for a week. Never mind, he would be out of the emergency room and back at the campground before the day was over. The hospital would quickly lose interest once they discovered he was uninsured, penniless, and living in a tent.
He knew where Will was going to school in the fall. Next time he would be more careful. Next time he would have a better plan. Next time he would remember to load the gun.
Garrett Faulkner smiled and closed his eyes.