Today's Reading

ISOBEL JOHNSON

Isobel Johnson spent most of each class period, and half of that afternoon's department meeting, obsessing over the message. She'd tried to place the strident voice and ruled out suspects based on their holiday teacher gifts. How could someone give her a twenty-dollar Starbucks card, she reasoned, and then six weeks later threaten her via voicemail?

Isobel took a deep breath as she headed for the door closest to the teacher parking lot and felt her belly strain against the waistband of her wool pencil skirt. She sucked her stomach back in and recalled the language in the message. "Flagrantly Marxist" was there, as was "anti-American," and, she thought, "retaliation." She'd have to play the message for Mark when she got home. That would make for more interesting dinner conversation than the usual run-down of soccer practices and school-day antics. Isobel let out a rueful little laugh thinking about it as she walked into the dull February chill.

"What's so funny?" Isobel looked back at Jamie, whom she hadn't noticed walking behind her. She'd first met her young colleague at the mentor luncheon during the girl's first week of work the year before. Now, Jamie's scuffed Liston Heights name badge clattered against a button on her fitted gray cardigan as she shifted her backpack, throwing her arm through the second strap. Isobel credited herself with Jamie's successful start at Liston Heights High, which had just that month been once again named the top public high school in the state of Minnesota. The school's high-powered parents usually devoured new teachers, but Jamie had made it through her first year-and-a-half with relatively few tears and only three or four parent complaints. Of course, it also helped that Jamie had graduated from Liston Heights herself just six years before. She knew how to present herself like an insider.

"Oh, hi!" Isobel said. "I was just thinking over some of the kids' responses to Chapter 6. Would you believe that Justin Williams suggested the chain of drugstores referred to Gatsby's secret cocaine ring?" Isobel rolled her eyes. "After that, I didn't even ask for their interpretations of Daisy's 'little gold pencil.'"

"What do you think of Eleanor's idea to move Gatsby to the fall?" Jamie asked, zipping her coat. They'd just spent fifteen minutes on that asinine proposal in the department meeting, Isobel staring resolutely at her notebook as their senior faculty member blathered on.

"Why not tell me quickly about the OK Cupid guy instead?" They had a hundred yards or so before they reached Isobel's minivan. She could see Jamie's Prius parked a couple of spots beyond it.

"Oh my gosh, yes!" Jamie gushed. "So, we've been messaging for, like, three days, and we finally made a plan to meet near my apartment for a drink after work tomorrow. Of course, everything is complicated by the proximity of Valentine's Day, but we already joked about that."

"Drinks on a school night?" Isobel couldn't help herself. She smiled, feeling old.

"I know," Jamie said, her dark eyes shining, "but remember the photo I showed you? He's super cute. I'm just marginally concerned about the fact that he's a chemical engineer. If we get married it's possible my dad will love him more than he loves me."

Isobel flinched at "concerned," which had been the lead in the message from that morning. "This is a concerned parent," the woman had said, her voice piercing and angry. Isobel had frozen where she stood as it started, her tote bag weighing down her forearm, right foot halfway into her LL Bean boot. The kids had already tromped out to the van, and they were three minutes behind the ideal departure time when the phone rang. Isobel hadn't bothered to race to it—no one they knew used that number anymore now that even twelve-year-old Callie had a cellphone. Besides, who called at 7:33am?

"Crossfit," Jamie was saying now. "I mean, I suppose I could give it a try?" The two stopped even with Isobel's trunk, a grimy "Live Simply so others can Simply Live," sticker affixed to the lower right-hand corner of the back window.

Isobel reached into her pocket for the key fob and watched the hatch rise. "You know how I feel about life-long learning," she said. "Why not master weight lifting?"

"Maybe tomorrow we can talk about what I might wear on this date?"

Isobel threw her tote into the trunk next to the bulk pack of Veggie Straws from Costco and a flattened baseball mitt. She hit the close button. "We can talk about it," she said as it came down, "but we both know you have much better instincts than I do."

"But that skirt." Jamie pointed at the pink herringbone poking out beneath Isobel's coat.

"Caroline." Isobel smiled, referring to her high-fashion sister, her go-to answer whenever anyone complimented an outfit. "Hey, have a great night." With a wave, she got in the van and headed home.
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