Mr. Lucas parked his red Toyota Camry in the empty parking lot underneath the baseball field. After the headlights expired, the only remaining light came from the single stanchion near the school’s front entrance. The night’s darkness and the quiet made the school, which was so familiar to Mr. Lucas, seem sinister. He forced himself to stay focused on his mission. He wanted to rid himself of his blackmailer. The weight of the 9mm attached to his hip and the bottles of bleach in his car were his insurance policy.

Mr. Lucas looked at his cell phone one last time before using his teacher’s ID badge to unlock the double doors. 10:25 PM. The end of a long nightmare.

***

As far as the adult citizens of Dorsey Lake were concerned, Mr. Lucas was the epitome of milquetoast. 35, single, and still making his way in the world: that was the only way to describe Jeremy Lucas, son of Angelo and Luella Lucas. If pressed into unflinching honesty, Mr. Lucas would say much the same about himself. He was a non-entity without much of a past and no future. At least he was never a disappointment to his parents.

Mr. Lucas taught music at Dorsey Lake High School. He was talented enough to get hired, but not good enough to do anything else in the world of music except teach high school students in a no-name, Mid-Atlantic small town. Except for one problem, Mr. Lucas would have been destined to teach the same songs for forty years until he could grab that pension and clock out for life.

Mr. Lucas’s problem was one that millions of other American men would kill to have. Mr. Lucas was considered attractive, and his most devoted followers were teenage girls. Once he became aware of this, Mr. Lucas began indulging in his urges. He lost count of how many students he had slept with. In his mind, the only number that mattered was 16; Mr. Lucas would not sleep with any girl younger than 16. He was a pig, he knew, but not a complete swine.

Unbeknownst to him, Mr. Lucas had indeed slept with several 15-year-olds, all of whom had lied about their age.

His sordid secret was safe and his life was fine until he met Meredith George. She was the one who soaked his erotic empire in gasoline and torched it. At first, Mr. Lucas did not consider her anything special. She had average looks and was friends with average-looking girls. Meredith drank an average amount of beer and took an average amount of pills (all of which had been purchased by Mr. Lucas, of course). On their one field trip together, the sex had been average.

Come prom time, Mr. Lucas was thinking about other girls, especially a brunette lacrosse player whose buttery lips made Mr. Lucas squirm whenever they pursed to play the clarinet. Meredith sent him a handwritten letter with floral decorations that she had drawn herself. The letter quoted John Donne. She wanted Mr. Lucas to be her junior prom date. In two terse lines, Mr. Lucas wrote back on notebook paper that such a request was not only impossible, but stupid, too. People would talk. Worse still, people would eventually find out just how many girls he had seduced over several years. He left the note in Meredith’s locker on the third floor and quickly forgot about everything, involving Meredith George.

Mr. Lucas underestimated the teenager’s determination. On a Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Lucas’s usual lunch of ham and cheese and ginger ale was interrupted. A misty-eyed Meredith stood in the doorway.

“Did I do something wrong?” she asked in a strangely sing-song voice.

Mr. Lucas responded with all the clichés. “No, it’s me, not you,” “I am trying to protect you and your future,” and so on. None of the old standbys worked; Meredith kept pressing him for answers.

“Look, Meredith. It’s over between us. I had a good time. I think you did, too.”

“So that’s all I am to you? Just another ‘good time?’”

The imp inside of Mr. Lucas snickered and whispered “Yep.” To the outside world, the music teacher stayed quiet, calm, and poised.

“You know what? You’re a real bastard. I can’t believe how cruel you are to me. You really are a heartless monster.”

Before Mr. Lucas could verbally defend himself, Meredith screamed a slew of words that sent icicles racing throughout his blood.

“I’m going to tell everyone about you. I’m going to tell the principal, I’m going to tell my parents, and I’m going to tell the police. Everyone is going to remember you as the rapist music teacher. The pedophile of Dorsey Lake. And you know what? I hope some big bubba rapes you in prison. That would be justice.”

Mr. Lucas shot out of his office chair and grabbed Meredith by her arms. Despite their thinness, there was an undeniable strength in her arms. He could feel the snapping sinews of her muscles as she tried to break free of his grip.

“Let me go. Let me go, goddammit!”

The intensity in Meredith’s voice caused Mr. Lucas to panic. He overreacted and squeezed too hard. His bony fingers pressed into the young girl’s throat, wrapping around her small, barely-developed windpipe. They stayed there for a long time as the two continued to wrestle. Meredith tried multiple times to rush for the door, but Mr. Lucas always managed to pull her back with his one free hand stuck over her mouth. Even after several bites that drew blood, Mr. Lucas kept the hand in place that kept the angry girl quiet.

A combination of physical exhaustion and Meredith’s limp body finally caused the grappling match to end. Mr. Lucas collapsed against his steel desk. He closed his eyes and focused on managing his breathing. He counted to a hundred, and then did it again. He opened his eyes when he felt as close to normal as possible.

Meredith did not move. She was sprawled out right underneath his office door. Some foul wind crawled into Mr. Lucas’s brain and told him to check the clock on the wall. In ten minutes, his next class would come stumbling into the music room. He would have to act and teach as if everything in the world was copacetic. He would not be able to pull off this charade unless he found a way to dispose of Meredith’s body.

A body. It was then that Mr. Lucas, Dorsey Lake’s playboy extraordinaire, realized he had committed murder. He had no time to dwell on the matter; he had to hide Meredith George’s body and somehow make her death look like something other than murder. With a speed that surprised him, Mr. Lucas thought about suicide. Not his suicide, but Meredith’s. He had to make it look like Meredith had committed suicide.

He put Meredith’s thin body on his shoulders and gingerly walked towards the janitorial closet that abutted his office. Since the music room was at the extreme east end of the school and too far away for the corpulent corps of janitors, the administrators had decided to put a small janitorial closet in the music room. On an average day, the closet only contained a mop, a bucket, and a tiny sink. The mop hung from a stout hook attached to the low ceiling. Mr. Lucas took down the mop. He replaced it with Meredith’s sweater. He tied one end to the hook and tied the other to Meredith’s throat. Mr. Lucas pulled the sweater so tight around the girl’s throat that he nearly passed out from the exertion. With his remaining strength, he hoisted her body aloft.

Meredith’s feet hovered above the ground, but just barely. Nobody, not even the most determined, could’ve killed themselves in such a fashion. He needed something else.

With just five minutes left until the sound of the end-of-lunch bell, Mr. Lucas found the unused box cutter that came with his office. Her wrists; he needed to slash her wrists to really make it look like a suicide.

The idea made him wince and gag, but he carried on. With a frenzy born of desperation, he hacked and slashed at the wrists that he propped up on the lip of the sink. He cut across and up and down. He even made little nicks because he had once heard something on a true crime podcast about “hesitation marks.” When it was done, the once white sink was awash in red.

Mr. Lucas shut and locked the janitorial closet. He ran back into his office and pulled out the extra shirt that he always kept hanging behind his office door. He had originally started the practice because a senior girl named Alexandra had ripped off the buttons of his Oxford during an after-school “quickie.” Mr. Lucas had forgotten that he had a teacher’s meeting that night and he was forced to sit through the usual griping sessions with his first three buttons missing. He tried to hide it by keeping his arms folded across his chest for two hours.

Nothing happened for the rest of the day. The students were far too involved in their cell phone screens to notice how sweaty their music teacher was. Not for the first time Mr. Lucas failed to admonish his class for looking too lovingly at their social media profiles and whatnot. However, as normal as everything seemed on the outside, Mr. Lucas’s insides were a hell of panic and sharp pains. He was convinced that everyone, from the students in his class to the teachers he saw in the hallways, knew that something was wrong with him. Behind their smiles or looks of indifference, Mr. Lucas saw malice and conspiracies. He raced home to his small townhouse, locked every door, shut every window, and turned off his cell phone.

It was obvious that somebody had found Meredith’s body overnight. When Mr. Lucas pulled into the faculty parking lot the following morning, he saw yellow crime scene tape and three police cars. There were also several teachers pacing around outside. Some had their ears pressed tight to bulky cell phones. Others were whispering to each other.

“Oh my God! Can you believe it?”

It was Miss Blankenship, one of the math teachers. Mr. Lucas could not remember the last time she had ever said anything to him.

“Heard what?”

A look of anguish ran over Miss Blankenship’s face.

“Oh, honey. I feel bad telling you. A student named Meredith George. She’s…um…she’s dead.”

“How did it happen?”

“I’m not sure, as I only found out a little while ago from Clarita.”

The name meant nothing to the music teacher.

“She said that the word going around is that the girl was murdered.”

Mr. Lucas’s throat and heart both sunk to his shoes. They knew it was murder already. He visualized the cuffs slapped on his wrists. He felt the hot sausage and coffee breath of the sheriff’s deputy as he said some action movie line before putting him in the back of a Ford Crown Vic. They just had to know that he was responsible.

Except that they didn’t. As the day progressed, Mr. Lucas kept hearing the same two words over and over again: the janitor. “It was the janitor.” “I always thought that he was a real creep.” “Yeah, but can you believe that he killed her?!”

The janitor had found Meredith dead. He dutifully reported it to the police, who in turn immediately began investigating him as a possible suspect. This was routine, but what they uncovered in less than five hours was not. Despite claiming that they always do a thorough vetting of all potential employees, the Dandridge County School System managed to hire an overnight janitor with a prior conviction of sexual molestation and statutory rape. By the time the real killer had arrived on the scene, the accused janitor had already signed a false confession. Half of it would appear in the Sunday paper, which Mr. Lucas would read aloud as he smirked and smiled about all of his good luck.

Yes, indeed, Mr. Lucas went from panic-stricken to relieved in record time. When school reopened a few days later, the music teacher-cum-murderer had a real pep in his step. He even tried to flirt again, but the mood of the school did not allow for any romantic success. Every student was on edge. They were suspicious of all the adults in their lives, especially the ones at school.

Mr. Lucas got the first email on a Friday morning. The name and address were nothing more than a random assortment of letters, numbers, and symbols. The message itself was “Untitled” and pithy:

I know what you did to Meredith George.

It is okay, Mr. Lucas thought to himself after reading the threat. He tried to play it off as a lucky guess. After all, Meredith was a member of the school band, and therefore spent a lot of time in the band room with him. Anybody could make such a supposition. The only thing that mattered was what the sheriff’s department thought, and they thought the killer was the poor overnight janitor.

Mr. Lucas tried to put the email in the back of his mind, but it would not stay there. The sinister words kept stabbing at the muscle and tendons behind his eyeballs. The invisible wounds gave him a headache. The pain grew so awful that he got a substitute for a few days. He told Principal Andrews that he had the flu.

The second and third emails came on the same night, 13 minutes apart. Each time, the email address was different, but Mr. Lucas knew it was the same writer.

You’re a murderer!

You’re a murderer and a pedophile and everyone will know it soon.

Against his better judgement, Mr. Lucas pecked out a response to the second message:

I did not do anything, and these are serious threats. I will call the police and send them your email address.

There was no intention behind this threat, as Mr. Lucas wanted to keep police officers as far away as possible. He merely hoped that the word “police” would scare off his wannabe tormentor.

It didn’t work.

A day later, on Sunday, the unknown writer offered him a choice.

I’ll keep your secret safe, provided that you pay me.

The price was astronomical. It was more than Mr. Lucas would make in six straight years of teaching. But rather than write back “No,” he agreed to the terms so long as the two met face-to-face in order to exchange the money.

Mr. Lucas had no intention of handing over any money at all. He had gotten away with murder already. He could get away with another. This time, he would have a fine-tuned plan.

***

The deep silence of the empty school bothered him. Luckily for Mr. Lucas, the arranged meeting was to be on the basketball court, which stood in the center of the first floor within spitting distance of the school’s main doors. He did not walk in immediately, however. Instead, he walked around all four corners of the basketball court. He was not looking for anything in particular, just making sure that he wasn’t walking into a trap. The hallways were empty and had the usual antiseptic smell of newly cleaned tiles. The smell reminded Mr. Lucas of the multiple bottles of bleach that he had in the trunk of his car. The same trunk that he expected to hold a dead body by the end of the night.

Mr. Lucas circled back to the front of the court. He walked in. The lights were dim, but not so dim that he couldn’t see the person standing at the center of the court. The figure was dressed in black. Unisex clothing. Tall. It wore a Halloween mask from some forgettable horror film. The figure did scare Mr. Lucas a little. That is, until it started talking.

The figure’s voice was the voice of a teenage female. The elevated timber also indicated that the speaker was barely past 14.

“Do you have the money?”

“Who are you?”

The figure shifted a little. It looked to Mr. Lucas like nervous energy.

“You’re really in way over your head.”

“Just give me the money, okay? If you don’t, I tell on you. I swear.”

“No, you’re not going to say anything more.”

Mr. Lucas, who had never fired a gun before in his life, pointed the 9mm at the bungling blackmailer. His finger hugged the trigger well. He smiled, but before he could squeeze out a round, he felt a pinch near the base of his skull.

The pinch came from a hypodermic needle full of a paralyzing drug called rocuronium. Jimmy George had gotten it from the hospital where his always sleep-deprived mother worked as a night shift nurse. He had read that the drug froze the muscles, but not the brain. He had also read about how many years ago, a former high school cheerleader from Dorsey Lake had pumped rocuronium into her cheating husband before setting their house on fire. Neither the man nor the house survived. Jimmy, never one for originality, decided that the cheerleader-killer’s crime should be repeated on a more appropriate victim.

While Mr. Lucas planned his second murder, Jimmy, who had known about his sister’s sexual relationship with the music teacher for months, and who always considered Mr. Lucas responsible for his sister’s death, sent out texts to all of Meredith’s friends. He also sent texts to the girls that had slept with Mr. Lucas before being summarily dumped just like Meredith. Jimmy knew that they wanted revenge because every single one of them knew that they could have wound up like poor Meredith. Some got close to the edge of suicide, too.

After securing the rocuronium, Jimmy got Alyssa Schultz, a TA for honors English, to steal Mr. Mahoney’s ID badge. Rex Talmadge, whose sister had never been the same since her sophomore year, handed a series of hunting knives and scalpels to Jimmy. He didn’t say where he got them from, and Jimmy didn’t ask. The last bit was accomplished by Gia Zambrowski, who worked part-time at a Sonoco just off of Highway 823. She filled up several jerry cans with gas.

Mr. Lucas watched it all happen, but could not do a thing about it. His arms and legs were frozen. Only his eyes could move. He could not scream, even though he tried to. He tried to scream when several of his former flings and their boyfriends and brothers carried him into the large chemistry room used by Mr. Valens. He tried to scream when one of the boys cut open his stomach with a razor-sharp scalpel. His last attempt at a scream came when Whitney Paulier, the first Dorsey Lake student that Mr. Lucas had slept with, sawed off his manhood before stuffing it in his pulled-open mouth.

***

It took longer to hack up the music teacher than it took to burn down the school. That fact made Jimmy and the others laugh.

“Are we having school tomorrow?” Alyssa asked sarcastically.

“Probably not,” Jimmy shot back.

“You know what I think is funny? I bet the bastard couldn’t remember my name,” Whitney said as she pulled on an e-cigarette. The smoke smelled vaguely like cherries.

“I don’t know, but I’m certain that he didn’t know me or some of the others,” Jimmy said.

“Good riddance,” Whitney said with finality.

The avenging audience of scorned high school students and one college dropout watched the flames reach towards the moon. By the time the first sounds of the fire trucks were heard in the distance, nobody and nothing was left standing.