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PART TWENTY-ONE

Doctor Mann’s office door was open but rather than taking the liberty of entering, Suzann knocked gently on the door frame.

Interlachen Elementary School principal Harper Mann was a woman one might at first overlook. She managed to ascend to a full sixty inches of height but only with the help of two-inch heels. Whatever she lacked in height, the woman made up for in grit and determination.

Stacie had never seen Dr. Mann dressed in anything other than her gray, two-piece school suits, whose skirt hems fell to Harper Mann’s observably diminutive mid-calves. The young teacher had been tempted to ask her principal how many identical suits she owned but had decided to let discretion be the better part of valor. The only part of the Dr. Mann dress code that varied was the color of the forty-four-year-old’s blouses and her jewelry selection; with not even the hue of her dark blue nylons shifting from day to day, week to week, or school year to school year.

Dr. Mann looked up from her desk, saw the two women’s toes straddling her threshold and assumed a polite micro-smile before saying, “Ladies. What can I do for you today? Please, come in. Sit,” she added, motioning with her left hand toward the two chairs in front of her desk.

Stacie waited for Suzann to enter and then took the seat closer to the exit. Harper waited for Suzann and Stacie to sit, then steepled her hands on her desk, turning her head slightly to the left, and raising her right eyebrow a quarter inch. “It’s always great to see you, Stacie,” the principal resumed, “but my guess is that if you’re here after 4:30 on a Friday there must be something bothering you?”

Before answering, Stacie momentarily formed her mouth into an O, bobbled her head slightly left and right and looked above Dr. Mann’s head. Returning her eyes to contact level with her principal she replied, “It’s nice to see you, too, Harper. Yes,” she added, drawing out her initial word sibilantly, “bothering me would be apt. It’s, uh, it’s something that’s grown from more of a follow up for a student into a rather perplexing and, -well, concerning?- observation of Skylar Kisor’s?”

“Ah. Little Miss Kisor. And how is she doing? Amy showed me her latest progress report; very encouraging,” Harper punctuated her response with three sage nods.

“Oh? Yes! She is making definite progress! Mrs. White is making just leaps and bounds with her on reading. She’s risen almost three reading levels from her initial baseline. I, I couldn’t be more pleased, though I’m a little worried about her falling behind again over the summer, I’ve given her a reading list of course but, well, anyway, never mind.

“It’s not an academic concern that brings me in, although I have plenty of those too,” she said with a self-deprecating grimace. “No, it has to do with our little stranger at recess episode from this afternoon?”

“This afternoon?” Harper answered, looking at Suzann. Speaking to the school secretary she said, “You indicated that the man never crossed our perimeter fence?” Shifting her focus back to Stacie she asked, “Did he say or do something that concerns you in particular?”

“Well, no. At least nothing that either Skylar or Sara Kohnen told me,” Stacie said before continuing in a long, nearly breathless stream of conscious response, “I also spoke with Shawn Ewell and Jim Lance, the two teachers who had recess duty? Nobody indicated that Caleb, that is the man at the fence, did anything but loiter and watch the children. Jim spoke with him. No, it was something very perplexing that Skylar said that has me following this crazy thread and I’m afraid that the further I follow it the further I feel like Alice falling down a rabbit hole.”

While Stacie paused for breath Harper took an opportunity to interrupt. “Wait. Slow down. You said, ‘Caleb?’ I take it that you know the man at the fence? Is that why you’re concerned? Do you have information about him that’s pertinent?”

“Oh,” Stacie replied eyes momentarily closed. Unclasping her hands, she lifted them just off her lap and fluttered them quickly left and right, “No, no. I’m sorry. I’m telling this quite poorly. May I begin again?”

            Suzann gently and momentarily touched Stacie’s right hand with her left and gave the young woman a reassuring pat. Stacie smiled in return while Harper waited patiently.

“Okay. Sorry,” Stacie said, eyebrows lifting upwards and eyes turning to the side in a quick flash of embarrassment. “Let me try again.”

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