F

Receiving your first failing grade can be a traumatic experience, especially when you know there’s more to it than an honest evaluation of your work.

Person works on a laptop while wearing a hoodie

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You’ve been refreshing the page for an hour now, and all you’re looking for is a single letter. You hope it’s a B. Even a C would be okay. You don’t expect an A in Mr. Miller’s English class, although you did stay up until two o’clock finishing that final research paper. It’s the best paper you’ve ever written, but you’re unsure how he’ll respond to it.

You refresh the page again and nothing. You pound your fist against the desk, wanting the suspense to be over and for your long summer to begin. You want nothing more to do with Mr. Miller, the worst teacher of your semester, a man who spent less time showing you how to write and more time boasting about his novels and how his literary agent keeps trying and failing to sell his latest manuscript. You’re not sure a class went by without him mentioning how three of his self-published novels were on Amazon. You might have even purchased one if you didn’t find the man so pathetic.

Your stomach growls. There’s nothing in the fridge, but maybe there’s a lasagna in the freezer, so you stand up, ready to shut down your laptop for the night. You can check your grades tomorrow. You got a B in every other class, so why would English be any different?

Still, your curiosity gets the best of you. You count to five, then refresh the page one last time.

There it is, finally, a grade next to your English class. The letter looks like an A at first, but then a brief gasp escapes your throat.

It’s an F.

That can’t be right. Your eyes are playing tricks. You click out of the page and come back in. You shut down your laptop and boot it up again. You’ve never received an F on anything in your life and yet there it is staring back at you, taunting you.

Mr. Miller must really not have liked that research paper, since you received an A on every other assignment. This is so dumb. He gave you the wrong grade — that’s the only explanation — so you e-mail him. You’re nice about it, just curious if he made a mistake. He’ll fix the issue in a prompt manner, you’re certain.

But an hour goes by and then five more hours and nothing. You managed to get some work done around the house, even made it to the gym before it closed, but by the time you’re heating up some leftover Thai food, you’ve double-checked your e-mail for the 50th time and nada. Mr. Miller isn’t writing you back.

You remain calm. Maybe he’ll check his e-mail later tonight or tomorrow. Maybe he’s traveling, you don’t know.

You watch a bad movie and go to bed and then check your e-mail again in the morning. There’s still nothing from Mr. Miller. He’s clearly avoiding you at this point, he’s such a coward, and so part of you wants to take the F and move on.

But no, you won’t let him get away with this. You open your web browser and type in his URL, www.masonmillerbooks.com — you can’t forget it since he promoted it every day. Maybe he has a personal e-mail you can write to.

If you weren’t so mad at the guy you would have felt sorry for him because this site is a joke. It looks like a five-year-old designed it, with the ugly gray background and the words in big italics. His books don’t look any better, the covers amateurish at best with shirtless men caressing scantily clad women, titles like Evermore and Ravaged and Tumultuous so cheesy you want to vomit.

You click around the site to find his e-mail address, but there’s no contact page or About Me, only links to his novels and short stories, as well as an orange form asking readers to sign up for his newsletter. You have nothing to lose, so you put in your e-mail and click SIGN UP.

The e-mail alert noise echoes through your bedroom. There’s something new from Mr. Miller, but it’s not the e-mail you hoped for — “Thanks for signing up for my newsletter!” the subject line reads. It’s a typical form e-mail any of his subscribers receives.

You click on it anyway. The e-mail is plain and basic, with a welcome and a thank you and links to his books, but there’s a discovery, too: At the bottom next to a sad, italicized Unsubscribe button is an address: 2848 Wonderstruck Court.

You rest your palm against your chin. You always wondered where Mr. Miller lived, and now here it is. You’ve cracked the case. What a moron to put his home address in the e-mail of his newsletter!

Wonderstruck Court. It sounds like something royal, magical. You picture Mr. Miller sitting on a throne in his Wonderstruck castle, enjoying a rack of lamb and a reserve chardonnay as he roars with laughter over the F he just gave you.

You go to Google Earth and type in the address. Thankfully his home is only 10 minutes away.

You could e-mail him first. Maybe wait another day, or until the end of the weekend. Play it safe, like you always play it safe.

But no — you head straight to your car. You’re not going to hurt him or yell at him. You just want to talk.

You keep the radio turned off as you drive to Mr. Miller’s neighborhood. You enjoy the silence, the time to reflect. You wonder what went through his mind as he read your final paper. Did he gasp? Did he tear up the pages and stuff them in the trash can?

You park against the curb on Wonderstruck Court, then put on your light jacket and climb out of the car. You step across a couple of empty driveways before you stumble to the third house and see the number 2848. This driveway is empty, too.

You approach his front door, knock three times, and then ring the doorbell. You probably should have rehearsed something to say to Mr. Miller, at least decided on what to open with. You’re willing to be nice about this, but you also have no reluctance in chewing him out.

Thirty seconds go by. You ring the doorbell again, and no answer. You take a few steps back, shove your hands into your pockets, and survey the house. There’s nothing special about this place. Unremarkable, just like your teacher. Faded beige and brown paint, two cracks in a front-story window, a square-shaped yellow lawn.

He’s not home, so you head back toward your car, ready to sit in the driver’s seat and wait for him to arrive as long as you need to, when you hear a loud clanging sound to your left.

You glance at the tall black gate next to the garage. It’s wide open, the growing wind slamming it back and forth against a wooden fence.

You walk past the gate and don’t bother shutting it behind you. It was his fault for leaving it open, and he’s practically inviting you into the house at this point, especially when you pull on the sliding door next to the covered barbecue and it opens with ease.

You step foot inside your teacher’s living room and there are no butterflies in your stomach, no worry an alarm is about to go off or a trained Doberman is going to pounce on you from the shadows. The one-story house is spacious and clean.

“Mr. Miller?” you ask as you tiptoe down the hallway. There’s no answer, so you move forward, past a laundry room and half-bathroom before you enter an office that’s so messy, so littered with papers and books and binders you can barely find any carpet to stand on. Unlike the rest of the house, this is clearly Mr. Miller’s territory, one that he hasn’t allowed his wife or a professional cleaner to touch, except for maybe the shiny, dust-free bookshelf that towers toward the ceiling.

You run the back of your fingers along the spines of the books, 10 copies each of Evermore and Ravaged and Tumultuous side by side, along with literary journals and a fiction anthology. He has so much of his work on display, along with a framed picture on the wall of what must be his family, Mr. Miller standing on the beach with a woman and two boys.

You take a seat on his computer chair and see photos of his kids next to the monitor, too. The boys look just like him, with short brown hair and giant dimples. The sight of them makes your stomach hurt. You wait for the pain to pass.

The room is warm and stuffy, so you remove your jacket and toss it on the floor before you push the chair closer to the desk and touch the keyboard. The massive monitor screen ignites in an instant.

You clap your hands when no password is needed and Mr. Miller’s computer desktop flashes across your eyes, an image of an idyllic winter wonderland. A dozen folders clutter up the screen with names like GradSchool, Teaching, ShortStories. You double-click on the Novels folder, and up come nine more folders, some with titles you recognize, like Evermore – Book 1, and some with oddball names like LesbianDinosaur. Such a variety of Mr. Miller’s important manuscripts, most of them unpublished, right there at your fingertips.

You minimize the folders screen. You’re not here to read his books. You came here to do one thing, and if he’s not going to be here to help, you might as well do it yourself.

You open his web browser and lean closer toward the monitor, searching through his web history, scrolling down until you find the tab you’re looking for.

“Please,” you whisper. “Please work.”

When the tab takes you to Mr. Miller’s college account, a grin flashes across your face, but then your heart starts beating out of control when a Honda Accord pulls into the driveway. The shades on the office window are drawn enough for you to see Mr. Miller step out of the car and walk toward the house. You’ve got 20 seconds to get this done, maybe less.

You focus on the screen again and scroll down to CLASS ROSTER. Next to your name is that ugly F. There are CHANGE and DELETE buttons next to it. You click on CHANGE.

You hear the front door open, so you stay as quiet as possible. You could make your grade an A — you deserve an A — but as the sound of your teacher’s footsteps echo down the hallway, you click on the letter B and hit SAVE CHANGES.

You exit out of the page and clear the Internet history, then jump to your feet and hurry past the office door. Mr. Miller is in the kitchen, drinking a beer as he scrolls through his phone.

You tiptoe in the other direction, trying not to make a sound as you head back to the sliding door. You move faster and faster. It’s five steps away.

Hey!” a voice shouts behind you. “Who the hell are you?

You spin around. Mr. Miller is no longer in the kitchen but halfway across the living room charging toward you.

“Oh.” He stops and sets the beer on a glass table. “What are you doing here?”

You don’t make a run for it. You stay strong and face him. “I needed to take care of something, that’s all —”

“You think you can just break into my house?” He grabs your arm. “You think you can just do whatever the hell you want and get away with it?”

“No. I came here to talk to you about my grade. You gave me an F, Mr. Miller.”

“And what?” he asks. “Are you surprised by that? You just wasted your time these last four months, and mine. I’m pretty sure your grade in my course reflects that.”

“Why would it be a waste of my time? I just wanted to get to know my own father.”

He tightens his grip, but you don’t try to wrestle him away. You stare into his eyes without blinking or flinching.

“What’s the matter, Mr. Miller? You didn’t like my research paper? I figured you would have loved it since it’s all about you. We both know there’s nothing you enjoy more in this world than yourself —”

“Okay, enough!” He lets you go, then crosses his arms. “You’ve had your fun, and you’ve made your point, but you’re not my child. You mean nothing to me. All you are is another student whining about a grade.”

You cross your arms, too, striking the exact same pose. “And what are you, Dad? After all this time I spent searching for you, what do I find? A total loser who’s trying to be the next Nicholas Sparks —”

Get out of my house!” He clenches his hand into a fist, like he’s ready to hit you, but then he shoves you toward the door. “I’m better than Nicholas Sparks! I’m better than all of them!” He gets in your face, his nose an inch away from yours. “You were a mistake, that’s all,” he whispers. “I’m glad I walked out on your mother. I’m glad I didn’t spend time to getting to know you. Because the family I have now is the only one that matters to me.”

You’ve managed to stay unemotional this whole time, but now tears are welling up in your eyes, and you can’t stop them. You move past your father before he has a chance to push you again, and you hurry down the hallway toward his office.

“Hey, where are you going!” he shouts. “I told you to get out of here!”

“Don’t worry, I’m leaving!” you yell back. “I forgot my coat!”

“Well, hurry up! I don’t want to see your face ever again!”

You enter the office and pick your jacket off the carpet. As you put it on, you say, “Trust me. You won’t.”

You approach his laptop again. It’s still powered on. You click on the folder called Novels and drag it to the bottom of the screen.

“You have 10 seconds before I call the cops!” your father shouts. “Ten! Nine! Eight!”

You wipe a tear from your cheek as you right-click on the icon and select Empty Trash.

You’re out of the house before his countdown ends, and you don’t even bother looking at him as you leave the premises.

When you arrive at your car, the decision’s been made. You had the desire to take a risk, move across the country, get to know your absentee father by any means necessary.

But now it’s time, finally.

It’s time to go home.

Featured image: Ekkapop Sittiwantana / Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. This is quite a story, Mr. Rowe. Well told with very descriptive sentences and dialogue. It has shock, mystery, action, more shock and at least some type of resolution. It may not have been what the ‘student’ here wanted, but now has anyway; for better and worse.

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