Again, it was happening: the empty seat in the back of the classroom was mocking me. “Where’s Nelson?” I demanded. In my mind, I was struggling to recall whether Nelson had even asked for the bathroom pass. It bothered me that I couldn’t remember, but then I’d been right in the middle of one of my favorite lectures: Beowulf.

Leila, from the desk in front of Pete Nelson’s empty seat, stirred and glanced up from her phone. “Nelson?” She twisted in the seat, her big eyes squinting back. She paused. “Like, he’s not there, Mr Deemer.”

Yeah, no shit. That’s what I wanted to say. “Thank you, Leila” I said instead, my voice Sahara-dry. Leila just grinned smugly, and it occurred to me yet again that Honors-level English was probably too much for her. Although, if her brains were even half the size of her tits, she’d have been having no trouble at all.

“You let him go to the bathroom, Mr Deemer,” Aaron added helpfully from his spot near the pencil sharpener. Good kid, Aaron. Dependable.

“I remember,” I lied, “but that was like ten minutes ago. What, did he fall in?” There came the usual ripple of laughter, dutiful from most of the kids, genuine from a few, and I sighed. “Whatever. Anyway. Let’s get back to Grendel’s mom, huh? How does she relate to our discussion of the uses of irony?” I smiled to myself. I tried to work that phrase into every unit at least once, just because, well, irony. Very few kids ever placed the quote, though, few enough that I used their knowing grins as one of the factors that played into who I recommended for the AP class the following year.

I was wrapping up, the kids already packing their laptops away and willing the hands of the clock around faster, before my AWOL student chose to darken my door again. “Nelson!” I barked. Shit, I’d forgotten him again. “Where’ve you been dude? You missed the whole class!”

He was moving with easy confidence, almost strutting, his arms and legs completely relaxed. Like a marionette on meth. When I stared at him, he just arched an insolent eyebrow. “What?”

I made a big show of peering at the clock by the room’s PA. “What? You’ve been gone the whole period, that’s what.” I thought of pointing out that his grade was already subterranean, and that he probably couldn’t afford the missed time, but there were already students milling around getting ready to leave and I bit it back. “Where were you, Nelson?” He just smiled, his stupid little pig-eyes sparkling oddly, and stretched his hand toward me with another little slip of purple paper in it. “Again?” I thought I caught a sharp smell, just on the edge of my nose, something I’d never caught before.

“Guidance pass.” He jerked his head, tossing his hair insolently out of his eyes. “I had a thing with Ms Anthony.”

“A thing.”

“Yeah.” His smile flattened out into a conceited line, sickly-smug. “A thing.”

The slip was a deep purple, almost a black, and I’d been getting them with alarming frequency for the past month or so; Alex Anthony had been a late hire for the Guidance Department, moving smoothly into Kathy Lorean’s old office once the disagreeable old bat had finally left the building (on a stretcher, with a badly broken hip; too bad, but at least she was gone). I’d only barely ever seen Alex, once, by chance at the Oktoberfest in town last weekend, and now here I was getting these annoying passes with her name on them in silver pen. “A thing.” I fingered the pass, eyeing Nelson with what I hoped was icy coolness.

The bell rang.

“Later, Mr Deemer,” he shrugged, that goofy grin surfacing once more, and as I watched the kids sluice out into the hall, I decided it might be time to send a friendly email to Ms Anthony down in Guidance.

* * *

Her reply came back off the official server, my politely cautious inquiry pasted neatly into the top of her email.

My dear Mr Deemer,

Thank you for your question about Peter Nelson’s visit to my office during Second Period today. He was in deep need of my assistance, but even so, I regret taking so much of his valuable time. Think of a way I can make it up to you.

As always, if you need anything, please do not hesitate to come to me.


I was struck, aside from Alex Anthony’s slightly stilted wording, by the density of the woman’s email sig beneath the initials. It was some arcane graphic, thick with pixels, a long electronic strip of purple art-nouveau curves spanning the entire screen, an underline that I could not ignore even if I’d tried. I blinked, the shapes seeming to twist and whirl as they marched across the screen, intricate and mischievous. Beneath was a line of little electronic flowers beneath her name, Alexandra Anthony, M.Ed, and last but not least came some sort of motto in a language that looked like… Greek? Russian? Weirdo letters, anyway, and I was at a loss; I teach English, which is hard enough even with a normal fucking alphabet.

Once again I pondered her message, but always my eyes kept dropping to those swimming violet whorls at the base of the message, confusing and fascinating and somehow exhausting as I blinked at it.

I creaked back in my office chair, tired all of a sudden, wondering about the new guidance counselor. Emails back from Guidance were usually… well, let’s call them “curt.” Some of them were downright insulting, and I’d expected more of the same from the new hire:

Yeah, I needed to talk to Peter. It took awhile. Catch ya.

That was more like what I’d gotten from my old adversary Kathy Lorean, or from Cheryl or Matt. Guidance usually kept things short and sour, like they were doing you a favor by replying.

But not Alex Anthony, apparently.

I rubbed my eyes, looking once more at the thickly scrolled sig line under her tidy email, then shook my head and realized it was time to get ready for my next class.

* * *

Next day it was Julius Taylor, towering over me in his football jacket just after the first bell rang. “I need to go to the bathroom, Mr Deemer,” he said with that quiet confidence he had. His big brother Lashawn had been the same way, always a hulking but dignified presence in the back of the room. The Taylors would never be academic superstars, but they were workers. And they could run, too; they were very popular during track season.

“Sure thing, Jules.” I glanced up at him, preoccupied as always by my difficulty with getting the goddamn smartboard all booted up. “Nice haircut.”

“Thanks.” He’d been in a jheri curl until yesterday. Now, his head was egg-bald. “I’ll be back.” He disappeared, walking tall with his shoulders squared, and he did come back… with two minutes to spare before the dismissal bell rang, moving a lot more fluidly now. And, I was shocked to see, with a smile on his face.

“Good lord, Julius!” I shook my head. “Dude. You missed a quiz.”

His eyes found mine slowly, wavering back from someplace far away, glittering darkly. “Huh?”

“A quiz,” I enunciated. There was a smell coming off his clothes, sort of like a spicy flower. “A quiz on Beowulf. You’ll need to make it up. You, uh, weren’t in the bathroom this whole time, right?”

“What?” He shook his head dreamily. “Naw, man. I was down in Guidance.” I wasn’t terribly surprised when he held out a dark purple slip with silver script on it. “Ms A, you know,” he muttered, and as he said the name his thick lips curled into a wider grin.

“Oh, I know,” I sighed. “I know. You can take the quiz after school. Don’t forget, dude.”

“I won’t.”

After lunch, during period four College Prep, it was TJ Rowe. That one barely even bothered coming into class, arriving an incredible fifty minutes tardy. He sauntered in, backpack slung over one shoulder, his Ken-doll mouth smirking. “I marked you absent for the period, TJ,” I frowned. “You’d better go get a pass.”

“I’ve got one, Mr Deemer.” He had that kind of whiny voice you hear a lot in ’80s movies, the kinds with an exaggerated nerd character, but that voice hardly matched his big lacrosse-goalie body. He was moving now with a strange lassitude, and I wasn’t surprised at all when I scented a sort of flowery spiciness.

“Let me guess.” I arched an eyebrow. “Ms Anthony. Guidance.”

His smirk twitched up on the right just a little too smugly. “How’d you know, Mr Deemer?” He held up a purple hall pass, rolled like a cigarette and held like one between two impertinent fingers.

My own smile was a lot thinner than his. “Lucky guess. Bell rings in ten minutes. Worksheet’s on your desk, TJ.” I had last period off that day, and I figured it was probably time to pay Ms Anthony a visit.

* * *

She’d been clear across the parking lot at the Oktoberfest, separated from me by like five haybales and a long picnic table full of craft brews at nine dollars a bottle, so I’d not gotten a good look at her. “That’s Alex,” my buddy Jake had pointed out helpfully. “She’s the new guidance bitch, coming in for that old hag Lorean.”

“Yeah?” Jake’s wife Katie was rolling her eyes at his language. She spent a lot of time doing that. “Where?”

“Over there. With the boobs,” and that had been all of it: I’d gotten a quick glimpse of above-average cleavage as the dark-haired woman across the parking lot turned away, but by then my attention was lost to Katie smacking Jake and the two of us laughing loudly. Katie didn’t like it when Jake talked about other womens’ tits.

My ex-wife had been the same way.

Guidance was a warren of little caves opening off a central office with a conference table, the four counselors each wedged into their own little space where they could shut the door during parent meetings. Right now, they had a fake jack-o’-lantern on the conference table and a stale bowl of last year’s candy corn beside it. I made a habit of being down there as seldom as possible, which was why the secretary eyed me suspiciously as I strolled in. “Oh.” She squinted over her glasses. “Hi, Sean.”

“Lisa.” A student slunk furtively past, seeking Matt in the second closet from the left. “Um. I’m wondering whether Ms Anthony is available?”

The secretary’s reaction puzzled me. Her face took on an instant, spastic mask of such loathing that I flinched. “Oh, sure. I bet she’ll be ecstatic to see you,” Lisa spat, but when I looked closer I thought I saw something else in her eyes, rolling right along with her hatred.

I saw fear.

“Head on in there.” Lisa jerked her head toward the closed door that still had K. LOREAN stenciled on the outside of it. “She’s not busy with anyone. Her Highness likes privacy, though.”

“Uh, thanks?” I felt her eyes on me as I walked off, and not because I had an ass worth looking at; no, this was about that spiteful spasm I’d just seen on her face, and I knew she was mentally classing me as some lesser creature, just because I’d asked to see the new counselor.

Women get jealous like that sometimes, when they work together. That’s what I told myself, anyway.

I knocked at the door with knuckles that trembled unaccountably, something weird nagging at the corner of my brain. A smell, maybe? Faint, but there? The voice that came from behind the door was a sweet lilt. “It’s open, Sean.” I frowned, looking suspiciously for a peephole in the door and finding none.

Not that it would have told her who I was, I reflected as I pushed the door open: the woman was sitting at her desk a good five feet back. “How’d you know it was me?” I managed as I stepped in, the faint tickling smell becoming a strong pulse. I was smelling Julius Taylor and TJ Rowe, that strangely fetching scent, all cinnamon and roses.

“Who else would it be?” Alex Anthony sat on her office chair, not in it. Most people slouch at work. They look up at visitors with a tired look in their eye and a stained coffee mug at their elbow. Not this one. “You may shut the door behind you, Sean. It’s never fun being disturbed.” She’d turned off the fluorescent above her, preferring a standing lamp in the corner that left the whole room in shadows.

Suspiciously, I eased her door shut with my foot, trying not to be too obvious as I studied her. Alex perched with a duchess’ posture, straight-backed like she was waiting for some cavalry officer to come ask her to dance. She was wearing a long black dress in something heavy, like velvet or thick silk, but it was so black it was hard to tell in the low light without staring.

And I certainly wasn’t going to do that: the dress was low-cut, though not scandalously so, but in line with Jake’s commentary at Oktoberfest it didn’t need to be. The way she was sitting pushed an impressive chest into the world, the smoothly swelling flesh at the top of two perfect tits swooping down from a long, graceful neck. On top of it all waited a heart-shaped face, serenely tipped to the left, her gaze direct and attentive from a big pair of bold, near-black eyes. Dark auburn hair lay coiled thick over her porcelain forehead.

She was breathtaking.

“I’m glad you’re here, Sean,” she said, her voice a low nibble at the edge of some deep part of my brain I was more comfortable ignoring. She folded her hands on the desk before her, and for a moment I had the strong impression it wasn’t the cheap, angular institutional desk the school had put in; for an instant, just a fleeting moment, it seemed she was sitting with relaxed grace behind one of those mahogany monstrosities you’d see in Victorian drawing rooms.

I blinked.

“Nice to meet you,” I said after taking a deep, flowery breath. I made myself smile and extend my hand. “What with Lorean leaving so fast and you getting hired, I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure.”

“No, you haven’t. Yet.” Her smile was a mystery, a darkly perfect lift of her full lips, gone almost immediately. It was the kind of smile that went straight down to my gonads. “I’m Alex. And you’re Sean.”

“Yep.” I was having a hard time putting my eyes anyplace. I’m a guy, and her cleavage challenged me; this was a school, dammit. It’s not like I could go around making a habit of staring at tits. The obvious choice was her eyes, but I was finding to my shock that those were having the same effect on my dick that her boobs were. I’d never seen eyes like those. I forced my butt into the chair she had on my side of the desk, trying to make headway. “So, I don’t want to take up too much of your time, Alex.”

“My time is yours, Sean.” It came out as a purr, the smile creeping back along that mouth of hers, that mouth I could suddenly see puckering, opening, swallowing the tip of my cock…

I shook my head. It wouldn’t do to go thinking like that. “It’s just that I’ve had a lot of my kids miss a lot of class time lately, and…”

Her hand swept up off the desk, one finger stretching up. The nail was long and purple. I had a sudden image of it, trailing along my chest hair, and I swallowed. I could feel my forehead prickling with sweat, her eyes serene on mine. “Let me stop you there for a moment, Sean,” she began pleasantly, and my mouth snapped shut like a ring box. “Did you think of a way I could make it up to you?”

“A way that what now?” I had no clue what I was saying. I felt like a fucking idiot. This was not normal for me; I prided myself on being quick-witted with my words. Alex nodded, her neck exquisitely controlled, her eyes alive.

“My email, Sean. The response I gave to you after I kept young Peter Nelson.” She smiled again, the mysterious one. “Do you not remember it? Most people find it hard to forget my emails,” she went gravely on, and suddenly there it was, twining through my brain: those thick violet whorls from the bottom of her email. I felt like I could almost see them on the desk before me. “In that email, I advised you to think of a way I could make his absence up to you.”

“You did,” I nodded thickly, like my head was in jello. “It’s just that I wasn’t sure what that meant. It’s his absence; he’s the one who needs to make it up to me.” I understood suddenly that my gaze had dropped, inevitably, to those smooth tits of hers, but I didn’t realize that until I was already trying to drag them back up to her eyes. Fuck! “I hadn’t thought of you making anything up to me, to be honest.”

She paused until I found her eyes again, then let the silence build there in the spicy air of that odd, gloomy little cave of hers before she gave a dry little chuckle. “But you’re certainly thinking of it now. My words make it so.”

I strained to clear my throat, some part of my brain screaming at me: I had to get out of there, fast, because suddenly my penis was giving every indication that it was about to spike out into a monster hard-on, for in that moment I made up my mind: her eyes. Definitely, incredibly, her eyes were sexier than her breasts. Already, like a guilty college sophomore at a sorority function, I was wondering frantically whether I’d be able to tuck my erection up under my waistband long enough to elude not just Alex’s piercing gaze, but also Lisa’s judgey one.

I was doomed.

“Well.” I willed myself to relax, but I might just as well have tried to stop plate tectonics. My whole body felt hot, tight, crimped. I had to get out of there. “I mean, I just wanted to check in and, you know, make sure we were on the same page as far as like passes and stuff.”

She nodded regally. “You’re the teacher, Sean. I am but a humble guidance counselor. It’s your page. I just turn it.” I felt my jaw go slack as she winked and nodded smoothly toward the door. “Please, don’t let me keep you. Even though I’ve enjoyed our visit.”

“Um.” If I could just get up and spin around quickly, I told myself crazily, if I could do it fast enough, I could say goodbye with my back turned, over the shoulder style, and she might not see the tent raging in my slacks. It had been decades since I’d felt so out of control. “Yes, Alex. Thanks.”

“I’m at your service, Sean. Always.” She smiled, that indulgent and saucy curve of her lips, a plucked eyebrow arching as I made my move. I lunged awkwardly around, pivoting straight out of the chair and up, my hand finding the doorknob as my brain struggled to resurrect my dead mojo. “Oh. And, Sean?”

I twisted, taking care to keep my guilty dick pointed against the door. “Hmm?”

“Keep thinking, Sean. About what I can do for you.” Her smile pursued me out of her office as I threw out a weak smile, barreling back out into the conference area and past the secretary’s disapproving gaze with the odd feeling that something was laughing at me.

It didn’t occur to me until I got back to my room that I’d solved nothing at all with my trip down there.

* * *

My problem, as should never have surprised me after my less-than-forceful treatment of Ms Alex Anthony, did not go away the following week. On the contrary: now the issue had spread beyond the quiet Julius and the cocky Nelson. Even boys like Brayden Hobbs and Mike Choi had started taking lengthy bathroom breaks, the rest of the classes as oblivious as the vacant looks in the boys’ eyes when they came back, each with a purple slip in his hand. “Dude.” Brayden was getting straight As. “What could Guidance possibly have to talk to you about? For an hour?”

He’d just glanced at me, lax-limbed and dreamy, his eyes taking their sweet time focusing. “What can I say, Mr Deemer?” He’d sighed happily, that faint scent of flowery spice washing toward me. “Ms Anthony is, like, super-dedicated to my success. Y’know?” I thought about that, and it must have led to a scowl because Brayden laughed. “Relax, Mr D. She’s just really… uh, really helpful. That’s all.”