Gloria Delaney sat at her desk as her fourth graders settled in to their math quiz. She’d just begun on the stack of writing assignments she was hoping to correct when she heard the scream. Loud. Shrill. One part panic, one part pain. The aggressor was Billy Poulin, of course, but the scene greeting Gloria when she looked up was uncharted territory even for him. He was leaning over the front of his desk and pulling Jenny Smith’s ponytail. Hard.
Gloria was out of her seat and running faster than she had in years. As she made her way down the aisle, the room began to slip away – her childhood home, the smell of sweat and cigarettes and cheap cologne as her brother pummeled her, her pleading with God to make him stop – and when she came to her hand was trembling, her fingers aching from how tightly she’d grasped Billy’s collar. After sending someone to the office to get Mr. Garfield, she held Jenny until her tears subsided, then began extracting the story.
“I told her to give me a pencil and she wouldn’t,” Billy explained.
“So you pulled her hair?”
“She said she didn’t have any, but I saw a bunch of them in her desk.”
Her messenger returned to the classroom at that moment. “Mr. Garfield’s coming,” she announced, and Gloria nodded silently. She could picture him out in the hallway, the twenty-nine-year-old rock-star principal stopping to tie a kindergartner’s sneaker, high-fiving a group of students on their way to gym class. A minute later, he entered the room sans tie, his hair pulled back in a man bun.
“Finally,” she said. “You’re here.”
Ten minutes had passed since the bell rang, five since the last of the walkers had been sent on their way. Gloria sat at her desk thinking about Billy, about the altercation that morning. She picked up the phone and began dialing Mr. and Mrs. Poulin from memory, but hung up before she finished. Odds were against her reaching them – she hadn’t yet in the dozen or so times she’d called them already this year – but she figured she should talk to Mr. Garfield and have a plan just in case.
She hoisted herself out of her seat and plodded toward the door. Maybe it was her fifty-two years, maybe it was the twenty pounds her husband kept insisting she lose, but her steps were slow. She paused at the bulletin board hanging on the far wall of her classroom. Getting To Know Me. Next week it would be taken down and replaced with something for Halloween, but for now it held photographs of her twenty-two students with each child’s Three Favorite Things. The favorites – Green Berets and video games and TikTok – may have been Billy’s, but when she looked at his photo it was her brother’s eyes staring back at her. Menace. Vitriol. The violence that no doubt led years later to her barrenness. Of course, the blame was not his alone; in her mind, the real culprits were her parents, whose careers were a higher priority than protecting their daughter. Gloria may have had little hope of reforming Billy, but by God was she going to hold Mr. and Mrs. Poulin accountable.
She was interrupted by a knock on the door. Luke Poulin, a student in her class last year, was standing at the entrance to her room. “I’m sorry about what happened today,” he said.
Without regard for who might be watching, she reached out and hugged him. It was a reflex at this point. Not like the first day of school a year ago, when she found him sitting by himself in tears at recess, passed over by his classmates for kickball. A spitting image of herself at that age. She’d approached him cautiously then, like she might a wounded animal, sidling next to him and slipping her arm around him. To her surprise, he’d melted in her embrace, clinging to her as if he were drowning. “You don’t have to keep apologizing for your cousin,” she said to him now. “He’s not your responsibility.”
“I promised my parents I’d keep an eye on him.”
“What about his parents? Any idea how I can get in touch with them?”
Luke looked down at the tile floor. “I don’t know their number.”
She took his hand in both of hers. “That’s okay, dear. Don’t you worry about it.”
Mr. Garfield was packing his belongings for the day when Gloria knocked on his door. “Can I talk to you please? It’s about Billy Poulin.”
“What about him?”
Hail Mary, full of grace…, she prayed under her breath. “He only attacked a student today.”
“Have you called his parents?”
“I have yet to reach them all year.”
He put on his jacket and slid his satchel over his shoulder. “Well, keep trying.”
Forty-eight hours later, Gloria turned off Main Street onto Ash Terrace. From there she found Elwood Court, an unpaved one lane path that dead-ended after fifty yards at one of the street’s three houses. She grew up here in town, had taught at Bancroft Elementary barely two miles away for the past thirty years, and had no idea this place existed.
She pulled in behind a rusted Ford pickup truck. Newspaper was everywhere, strewn throughout the dirt driveway, plastered against the siding of the house. A refrigerator sat retired on the front lawn, its door hanging off its hinges. Just beyond it, through a curtainless window, a television cast its flickering light on a bare wall. Gloria took a breath, then got out of her car.
She hadn’t told Mr. Garfield her plan today – God knows he wouldn’t have approved it – but as she approached the struggling house, she considered the possibility that someone should know where she was. She reached into her purse for her phone, all the while keeping her eye on the maze of debris in front of her. A metal rake, its handle rusted, lay tines up in her path, a rattlesnake baring its fangs. She sidestepped it, rolling her ankle on an overturned flower pot and dropping her phone on the weed-packed ground. By the time she gathered it and wiped it off, smearing a trail of dirt on her polyester slacks, she’d reached the front step. She placed the phone back in her purse.
On the third press, the doorbell rang and was met with yelling inside the house. “Norm!” someone shouted. “Wake up, you asshole! Someone’s at the goddamn door!”
Gloria considered her phone again, but before she could reach for it the door opened and Luke slid out onto the top step. In the dimly lit room behind him stood a woman in a nightgown, her hair disheveled, her face a pasty white that seemed to almost glow in the dark, still yelling at some offstage Norm. Luke closed the door, muting only slightly the chaos inside.
“Is everything okay in there?” Gloria asked.
The boy held a rabbit in one hand, was gently stroking its fur with the other. Still, he leaned his shoulder in for a hug. “Everything’s fine.”
“Do you mind if I come in?”
He avoided her eyes, focusing on his rabbit nibbling at his finger. “Now’s not a good time. My dad’s sleeping.”
“Let me guess,” Mr. Garfield said when Gloria arrived unannounced at his office the next afternoon. “Billy Poulin.”
She took a seat and waited for him to finish his paperwork. His desk bore no evidence of a life outside of work. No bobblehead doll from his favorite sports team. No concert tickets tucked under his plastic desk pad. No photos of a significant other.
After a minute he put down his pen. “Did you get in touch with his parents?”
“I went to his house yesterday.”
“You did what?”
“Luke and Billy Poulin live in squalor,” she replied, a little too quickly. “Luke’s parents are alcoholics. At four-thirty yesterday afternoon, Luke’s father was passed out drunk on the sofa, and his mother looked like she hadn’t showered in days. And those are the good parents. Billy’s mother and father decided they couldn’t be bothered raising their son and dumped him on Luke’s family. So what did you expect? That I would sit back and do nothing?” She closed her eyes, tried to slow her breathing.
“This isn’t like you, Gloria. You never buck against the rules.” He waited for her to look at him again before continuing. “What is it you want at this point?”
“We need to call the Department of Children and Families.”
“Do you think that’s what Luke and Billy want?”
Her brow furrowed. Since when did what the child wanted ever matter? “So you’re going to let them get away with this?”
A smirk crossed his face. “And here I thought we were talking about the boys.”
The ensuing silence felt oppressive, suffocating. When Gloria spoke again, her voice was a murmur. “Maybe I should talk to the superintendent.”
“I wish you wouldn’t. You’d be going over my head.”
“You talk to her then.”
Mr. Garfield removed his glasses, placing them gently on his desk. He rubbed the bridge of his nose, then crossed his arms and sat back in his chair. “Okay, Gloria,” he said. “Okay.”
He didn’t look up when she knocked the following afternoon. “I left her a message,” he said. “I’ll let you know when I hear back from her.”
She entered his office and went over to the window. Outside, Noreen Jones, Luke’s teacher this year, was walking to her car. Above her, a solitary leaf drifted in the air, carried by the October breeze. Gloria turned to face her boss. “Did Billy’s aunt or uncle call today?”
“Not that I’m aware of.”
“So they didn’t report his absence?” She lowered her head, looking at him over the top of her glasses. “Still not think we should do anything?”
“What do you think will happen if you call DCF?” he asked.
The more pressing question, to her way of thinking, was what might happen if she didn’t. What if one of the myriad of potential disasters that had been scorching her brain the past couple of days actually occurred? What if, for example, Billy turned on Luke, and Mr. and Mrs. Poulin were too drunk to stop him? “Hopefully they’ll help Luke’s parents get sober.”
Mr. Garfield shook his head slowly. “I don’t think so,” he said. “They’ll probably decide there’s not enough there for them to intervene, and they’ll close the case. Mr. and Mrs. Poulin will keep drinking, will keep being the lousy parents they are today. The only thing that changes: they’ll be angry with Billy and Luke for bringing this trouble into their home. And if I’m wrong, if DCF mandates detox or rehab, is that any better for the boys? What happens to them while the parents are in a treatment program?” He didn’t wait for her to respond. “They get pulled out of the home and put in foster care, that’s what. Either way, if you involve DCF, those kids’ lives only get worse.”
She walked over to the chair fronting his desk and slumped into it. “My husband and I talked last evening,” she said. “If Luke was removed from his family, we would take him in. We’d even be willing to adopt him if need be.” Hail Mary, full of grace… There was zero chance Earl, who never shared her pain when the doctor gave her the news, who was too immersed in his own life, would agree to this.
“And what about Billy? You’d be willing to take Luke in, but what…? Let Billy cycle through the system alone?”
“No.” She put her hand on her knee to stop her leg from shaking. “We’d be willing to take him in, too.”
He eyed her sideways, and she had to look away. On the wall adjacent to his desk hung a framed and matted sheet of paper, a handwritten letter from students last year petitioning the superintendent to name Mr. Garfield the new principal. It was the centerpiece of his office, displayed in full view all by itself. She couldn’t help but wonder if he’d had any friends as a kid.
“You understand there’s a conflict of interest here.”
This time she closed her eyes to escape his gaze. Twelve years old. Curled up on her bed. Her brother punching her over and over again in the stomach. She tried to imagine how it would have felt, how differently her life might have turned out, if a single adult had stepped up. “Let me do you a favor, then,” she said, her voice quavering in concert with her leg. “I’ll resign.”
“That’s not what I want.”
“What I don’t want is for an innocent kid to suffer just because of some bogus bureaucratic…bogusness.” She stood and turned toward the door.
“Don’t you mean two innocent kids?”
The house was quiet when she got home. She considered calling out to Earl, considered going to look for him, but began washing vegetables instead. She hated their sprawling Colonial. Hated its empty bedrooms and its unused swing set and its finished basement with a golf simulator and workout equipment and a dozen other excuses for her husband to remain distant now that he was retired.
She’d just finished setting the table and was about to sit down when he walked in from the living room with the crossword he’d been attempting. He told her about his day. Eighteen holes with the guys. An hour on the Peloton. A nap. She told him about work, about her meeting with Mr. Garfield.
“You can’t resign,” her husband said, stabbing a piece of asparagus with his fork. “What would we do about health insurance?”
Monday morning, Gloria stood at her filing cabinet putting together yet another packet of work to send home for Billy. Her students were sitting at their desks, diligently working their pens and pencils over the science sheet she’d given them to complete. No hair pulling, no screaming, no disrespect or disregard for one another.
The knock on the door pierced the silence, startling her. She stepped out into the hallway, where one of the office secretaries awaited her.
“Mr. Garfield needs to see you,” she said, wiping mascara off her cheek with a tissue. “I’ll cover your class.”
“Mr. Garfield needs to see you.”
Gloria trekked down the empty hallway, her footsteps echoing off the tile floor, off the walls and the trophy cases and the lockers. It was a short walk, just beyond the annex and the school’s main entrance, but not today.
She passed the secretaries’ desks and continued around the corner to Mr. Garfield’s office. He was sitting with the vice principal, the school psychologist, and Noreen Jones, all silently watching the door. As she approached the room, she clutched her stomach.
“Gloria, come in, please.” Mr. Garfield extended a hand to the one unoccupied chair and closed the door while she sat. “I’m afraid I have bad news.”
Mr. Garfield offered to drive together from the school, but Gloria ignored his emails. When the day arrived, she called out from work and drove to the church alone. She arrived early and sat in a pew by herself. A few minutes later Mr. Garfield and Noreen joined her.
Before long, music began playing and the smattering of people throughout the church rose. Billy processed in behind the casket, and Gloria felt her hand reach out to him as he passed her pew. As for his aunt and uncle, who flanked him walking down the aisle…her jaw tightened. It was Mr. Poulin’s cigarette that set the fire when it fell from his mouth. As flames engulfed the house, he lay passed out on the couch, too drunk to wake up. Too drunk to comprehend what was happening when his ten-year-old son guided him, his wife, and his nephew to safety. Too drunk to stop his son from going back into the burning home one last time to try to save his rabbit.
Hail Mary, full of grace… Gloria scolded herself for not being more Christ-like, more compassionate, more forgiving. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Had she called the superintendent? Had she called DCF? No. Her boss had told her not to and she’d cowered, putting her job ahead of doing what was right. Maybe this was why God had deprived her; maybe she would have done no better in the role than her own parents.
After nearly an hour, the mass came to a close. As they stood waiting to process out of the church, Mr. Garfield put his arm around her and gave a gentle squeeze. She recoiled, heat spreading outward from her chest, enveloping her arms, flushing her face.
This is your fault, she wanted to scream at him.
She pictured shoving him off her, spinning him around so hard he fell back into the pew.
This is your fault.
Envisioned pounding on his chest, both fists in unison, as he slouched away from her, powerless to stop her fury.
This is my fault.
She’d been watching the clock since the opening bell, struggling to focus on the lesson she was teaching. Second row, third seat. Empty. It was the first time Billy had been absent since the funeral. No phone call from Mr. or Mrs. Poulin, of course; not so much as this tiny courtesy to spare her the past hour worrying about him.
Nine forty. Clear across the room, the phone rang. Gloria hurried past her students decked out in their costumes – Tyler the pirate, Ryan the football player, Grace the ballerina – and reached it after the fourth ring. Hello. Wonderful. Send him down.
A minute later the door opened and Billy shuffled in. Gloria smiled at him, but his eyes avoided her, his gaze locked on the floor, as he trudged past his classmates to his seat. The air was silent, as if snow were falling in the room.
He had just dropped his backpack on his desk when Ryan addressed him. “Nice costume,” he said from the safety of two rows away. “Let me guess: a kid who’s late to school?”
Billy took a step toward him, then stopped and took his seat without a word.
“Ryan, that’s enough! Billy, hallway, now.”
Gloria waited until the door closed behind them.
“Are you okay?”
Even out here, away from his peers, he wouldn’t look at her.
“Tell me what’s going on.”
Somewhere in the distance, a locker door slammed shut.
“Billy?” She cupped his chin with her hand and lifted his face, bracing herself for his reaction. “What happened?”
A tear trickled down his unwashed cheek. “They came and took me yesterday.”
Gloria was still at her desk an hour after school let out. She knew she should get home if she hoped to beat the first of the trick-or-treaters, but she was slow to move. Sitting back in her seat, she took in her classroom, studying it in detail. Twenty-two desks, their surfaces empty, their chairs neatly tucked in. The row of hooks along the back of the room for coats and backpacks. The Halloween bulletin board on the far wall. Eventually she grabbed her purse, turned off the light, and closed the door behind her.
The main office was empty, but she saw a faint trace of light coming from around the corner. Mr. Garfield was at his desk, immersed in something on his computer, and didn’t appear to notice her.
Gloria took a breath, then knocked.
Thomas Carlson is a psychologist in private practice in Connecticut, where he lives with his wife and their three children. His short story “Empty Promises” was recently published in Litro Magazine (July 7, 2021).