Giselle sat besides Pater feeling a mixture of excitement and apprehension. Tonight would be the first time she was visiting her new home. After traveling up a winding road some distance, the snazzy sports car zipped to a stop in front of an enormous house surrounded by a high fence. Pater revved the engine a couple of times then pulled into the driveway. He got out and briefly stretched then came around to the passenger’s side and let Giselle out.
Inside the lights were dim but the cheery smell of pumpkin and spice filled the air. A male voice called out, “Master Notorious?” Giselle turned toward the sound and was startled by the pale, frowning visage of a man dressed in formal, somber clothing.
“Bags, please, Mr. Raff.” Pater spoke in a commanding voice and tossed the car keys to the man who deftly caught them and proceeded outside.
“At last you have arrived,” spoke another voice, this time female. Giselle turned back towards the grand staircase and saw a woman wearing a heavily starched magenta dress, with buttons all the way to the neck. Her skin was pale, as pale as the man’s, as if neither had even been in the sun. “Supper is prepared for you, Sir and the young mistress,” she said, as she came to the bottom of the stairs. “I hope you will enjoy the pumpkin pie.” With that final word, she disappeared down a dark hallway.
Pater suggested to Giselle she take a bath and change into her pajamas which she was glad to do after their long drive. The little girl joined her benefactor in a large, wood-paneled dining room. On the table were plates of warm food, including generous slices of pumpkin pie. She ate quietly, hoping Pater would fill the silence with an explanation regarding the presence of the man and the woman. But he was quiet as well. When Pater finished, he said only, “Leave the dishes for Mrs. Danvers” and “Goodnight.”
The next day, Giselle was awakened early when bright, hot sunlight fell across her closed eyes. Grumbling to herself, she looked up at a row of semi-circular windows high up on the wall, none of which were covered.
“You’re awake, Miss?” It was the woman, Mrs. Danvers. She stood in the doorway, her chalky skin nearly transparent in the morning sun. “You must hurry for it is almost time for school.”
Giselle washed and dressed as quickly as she could and just as quick gulped down the delicious breakfast waiting for her in the dining room. Then she heard the man, Mr. Raff, calling out “Schoolbus!” She took that as her cue to run outside and board the rumbling, yellow behemoth. She had her choice of seats for no other child was on board. With a great churning of gears, the bus turned around and headed down the winding road.
Apparently she was the only child who lived in her neighborhood for the bus never made another stop until it arrived at an old brick building with a playground on the side. Giselle nimbly hopped down the steps of the bus and walked the expanse of a long courtyard with her head held high trying to appear confident. Inside, she was nervous but she sensed it was important not to let her anxiety show.
Much later into the schoolday, a phone call was made to Giselle’s new home. Mr. Raff took the call and in the receiver heard a shrill and angry voice demanding to speak to the parents of Giselle Notorious. He promptly handed the phone to Mrs. Danvers and then stood by, watching with interest.
Mrs. Danvers cleared her throat and spoke with gentle authority. “The child has no parents and her guardian is unavailable,” she said. “I see…I see. Truly this matter sounds like it is a private one, not necessarily something Master Pater would want you to discuss with anyone but him,” Mrs. Danvers continued, sounding a little indignant. She named a time that evening and gave the address of the Notorious home, all the while rolling her eyes and shaking her head at Mr. Raff, and then she promptly hung up without any kind indication she was doing so, no ‘good day’ or otherwise.
When Pater came home, Giselle had already eaten, bathed and changed into her bedclothes. He found her in the conservatory, splattering vivid colors on a small, stretched canvas. Sitting in front of the chess table with a sigh, he spoke to the girl in measured tones.
“How is school?” he asked.
“How is school supposed to be?” she answered.
Pater considered this question carefully before responding, not in the least bit concerned about her impertinence. He only ever spoke to her on an adult level, the way he spoke with any child.
“It is supposed to be a safe place where children go to learn new things.”
Giselle wiped her brush on a cotton cloth and set it down in the tray connected to the easel. She stepped off her stepstool and came over to Pater. Her eyes were filled with pleading. “School is none of those things. Don’t ever make me go back there again.”
Before he could answer the doorbell rang. Giselle heard the sound of footsteps hurrying to the door, then Mr. Danvers greeting someone. “Master Notorious, please come here,” she called out. Pater looked at Giselle with a gravity that made the girl feel a little frightened. “Go to your room and do not come out until I say so,” he directed. She climbed the staircase with one quick backward glance and was even more frightened when she saw who was standing at the door. Like a scared rabbit, she scampered the rest of the way up to her room.
“Mr. Notorious,” said the guest and held out her hand. “I am Mrs. Osteen, the principal of Giselle’s school.”
Pater took her hand and gave it a brief shake then took her by the elbow and led her into the dining room.
“What brings you to our humble abode this evening, Mrs Osteen?” Pater asked in his gravely voice.
“Oh, my, it is hardly humble!” she answered brightly with a half-smile on her face. “You have a beautiful house! I don’t often get to go inside the homes of my young charges.” She paused and said in a little less bright of a voice. “I just wish I was here under more pleasant circumstances.”
Pater’s expression was stony and unreadable. He said nothing, simply pierced Mrs. Osteen’s eyes with his own, waiting for her to go on. She was chilled by his stare and lost her train of thought for a moment. She felt she was not going to have an understanding audience and wished she had arranged a meeting at her office, where she would have the home field advantage.
“Something extremely disturbing happened today and it centered on Giselle,” she began. “I am afraid the child did something so terrible—why, in all my years in education, I have never known a seven-year old to perpetrate such actions.”
“Perpetrate?” Pater sounded incredulous. “Are you suggesting the child is some kind of criminal?”
“Mr. Notorious, five children had to go to the hospital today because of Giselle.” The woman held up one hand, fingers extended, to emphasize her announcement. “She is not a criminal but in my opinion she exhibited a streak of sadism that could mean her behavior falls out of the range of normal.”
“You must be more explicit, Mrs. Osteen,” Pater said. The principal was a bit taken aback by his reaction or lack thereof. “What exactly did she do?”
“She created a strange concoction of paste, chalk dust and tiddly-winks and somehow, she convinced these children it was candy and they should eat it!” Mrs. Osteen was losing ground quickly for Pater still seemed unmoved.
He stared at her again with his unnerving stare. Silence ensued. At last he raised his eyebrows and asked, “What do you suppose these children did to warrant such treatment?”
“Whatever do you mean?” Mrs. Osteen replied and then trying to sound casual, she continued, “Oh, well, the teacher did say there was some teasing going on. Children can be—“
“Cruel? Bullying?” Pater cut in. “Sadistic, even, if I may use your own words? Maybe so much so that they gang up on ‘the new girl,’ making her feel rejected and hurt? And maybe the teacher lets these things go on because he or she feels things have a way of sorting out in time. Could it be Giselle was simply defending herself?”
“Avenging is more like it, don’t you think?” Mrs. Osteen hissed for she felt Pater was belittling her concern and that the whole situation was being turned around in a way she had not anticipated. “Mr. Notorious, the behavior that you describe is something that children, for better or for worse, learn to deal with in school. Maliciously being poisoned is not! I’m afraid I must expel Giselle immediately.” Hardly had such a harsh punishment been planned ahead of time but once the words had left the principal’s mouth, she saw no way of taking them back.
Though Pater had asked her not to leave her room, Giselle’s curiosity had gained the best of her. She had crept through her door and onto the landing of the staircase. As quietly as she could, she sneaked down a few stairs, intently listening to the exchange below. What happened next was not only a shock to her but to Mrs. Danvers and Mr. Raff as well, who were hiding and watching from the kitchen.
Pater Notorious became a raging bull. His fists were balled in rage. His face was contorted into a mask of hatred. He puffed out his chest and began bellowing at the woman in front of him.
“You dare to come into my home and accuse a child who is like a daughter to me of being abnormal and perverse? Tell me, Mrs. Osteen, what are your qualifications besides some two-bit degree in teaching? Are you schooled in pop psychology as well? Principal, eh? Everyone knows in a pathetic bureaucracy such as education, only mediocrity rises to the top! I suggest you take your shabby coat and your cheap shoes elsewhere!”
In all her years of dealing with the caretakers of the children she liked to believe she cared for and nurtured, no one had ever spoken to her with such fury. Nor had anyone insulted her intelligence, her experience, her hard-won promotions, or her sterling education. Or had it been so ideal, her mind raced, after all she had started out at a community college and finished with an online degree. Had she truly earned the right to climb the ladder based on merit or had it simply been the case that the last woman standing got the job? Mrs. Osteen was mortified, not only by his words but by her sudden self-doubt brought on by the barrage of insults hurled in her face. Without further discussion, she ran from the Notorious house, trying to stave off tears until she got to her car.
When he heard the door slam, Pater took a deep breath, then another, trying to calm down. He did not want anyone in the household to see him, not realizing all had been witness to a terrifying display. Slowly he climbed the stairs to Giselle’s room, only to discover her happily playing on the floor with a teddy bear (of sorts.) Standing at the threshold of the door, he weighed his options. He could discuss the day’s events with the girl. He could mete our some discipline. Or he could simply resign himself to what he knew was fact—this child was a Notorious through and through.