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Molly Masters Series

Death Comes to the PTA

Death Comes to the PTA

Chapter 1

Brake Fast

"What!?!" my daughter, Karen, cried as I tried to relax my two-handed, white-knuckled grip on the dashboard. "You said 'Stop,' so I stopped!"

"Yes, but the brake doesn't need to be stomped on as though you're crushing a cockroach. Neither does the accelerator."

I gave a glance behind me at my best friend, Lauren, and her daughter, Rachel. Lauren's face was almost as pale as the whites of her eyes, although Rachel was smiling and appeared to be enjoying our bone-jarring ride. Lauren and I had combined forces, thinking a joint driving lesson for both of our daughters at once would be killing two birds with one stone. We had miscalculated; this was killing two mothers with one car.

Softening my voice, I added, "They're pedals, not onoff buttons."

"How was I supposed to know that?"

Silently I retorted: By listening to my instructions and observing how we've been hurled forward or backward like crash dummies! My reply, however, was a reasonably even-voiced, "Now you do," while I reminded myself that, although there were nicer ways to spend a chilly Saturday morning than circling a deserted parking lot at Carlton Central School, there were worse ways, as well. Not that I could think of any at the moment.

"Jeez, Mom!" Karen cried. "If you think I'm such a hopeless case, why can't I just get Dad to teach me?"

The true answer was: Because I lost the coin-flip, but I replied, "I don't think you're a 'hopeless case,' and you will get plenty of lessons from your father." Starting tomorrow and lasting for many, many months. Even if that required my buying a two-headed coin. I took a calming breath, which didn't seem to do the trick. "Let's go over the basics again, starting with the pedals."

"I'm never going to be able to drive! I'll be the only graduate in the history of Carlton Central School without a driver's license!"

"That's not true. My sister didn't get her license until she was in college."

"So it's hereditary?" Karen shrieked. "I come from a line of slow learners behind the wheel? This is going to kill my popularity at school! Nobody's ever going to want to hang with someone too stupid to drive!"

I was not about to enter into a catastrophizing contest with my daughter. At sixteen, Karen had mastered that art. "Okay, then." I clapped my hands once in a smack-something-other-than-your-daughter move. "Back to the basics. Long, thin pedal on the right: gas pedal. Requires a light, steady pressure to make the car go. Squarish, high pedal on the left: brake pedal. Activates our power brakes and stops the car. Use your right foot only and, remember, both pedals are never pressed at the same time."

"I didn't! I was...transitioning."

That excuse was a new one on me, and I had no response. I rubbed my eyes, trying to quell the nervous tic that was developing. I turned to Lauren and Rachel behind me. "You're sure that the driver's ed class has no openings?"

"Not till June," Lauren replied.

I returned my attention to Karen. "And we can't wait three months because...?"

Karen clicked her tongue again at my profound ignorance. "All our friends are driving already. Tell her, Rachel."

"All our friends are driving already," Rachel dutifully repeated.

"You know, Mom, if you didn't want to give me driving lessons, you should have given birth to me earlier in the year, like all our friends' moms did. They all got into driver's ed this semester."

Matching my daughter's tone of voice, I snapped, "Sorry if that strikes you as shortsighted of me. For some reason, while I was busy giving birth to you, it never occurred to me what impact your having a March birthday would have on your social life."

Time for another calming breath. Actually, this called for those breathing exercises they'd taught us in birthing class to shift focus away from the pain. I did a quick "hee-hee-hoo," then said, "You're going to make a slow turn now, drive to the other side of the parking lot, and stop."

She shot me a dirty look and crossed her arms.

"Karen, do you want to learn how to drive or not?"

"Yeah, but not if you're going to look-at me the whole time!"

"Oh, my God. Fine." I rotated a little in my seat, but my heart rate was increasing despite my best efforts to stay calm. "I'm looking forward, see? I'm looking at that little bird sitting on the asphalt just a few short feet ahead of us." It was a brown sparrow, bathing in an icy puddle in the parking lot. I tried to send him a telepathic message: Fly! For God's sake, use your wings! Save yourself!

The next several seconds were a literal blur, with Karen somehow managing a hairpin turn just before we ran off the parking lot and into the surrounding trees. I got the distinct impression that only two wheels made actual contact with the pavement. All the while, I was shouting, "Slow down! Turn! Look out! Brake! Brake!" and a couple of major curse words right at the end when I really thought I was about to get a face full of air bag.

Next thing I knew, we were facing the high school building and all trying to catch our breath. This time, Karen and Rachel were shaken, too. I looked at my daughter's features in profile and could only think how desperately I never wanted that perfect, beautiful face of hers to be sent through a windshield.

Lauren broke the silence. "Maybe we should get out of the car for a while, Rachel."

"No, you're safer inside it."

"Mom's right," Karen said, her voice sounding on the verge of tears. "I might hit you."

"Don't get discouraged, sweetie. This—"

"Mom, you get out."

I glared at her, bristling at the implication that she considered me more expendable than Rachel or Lauren, but she went on, "You can teach Rachel how to drive, and Lauren can teach me."

"That's a great idea, honey," I said, just about to turn around to try to sell Lauren on the notion. Her daughter was a much better student so far.

"That's a thought," Lauren said, but while she spoke, she reached around my seat back and pinched my arm.

"Ow! I mean, I can't really agree to that, on second thought. For one thing, it looks like Lauren's getting a little carsick."

"Let me just try one more time to drive all the way around the lot, then we'll go home. Okay?"

"Okay," the three of us said in unison.

Rachel said, "Don't push so hard with your foot this time."

"Oh. All right," Karen replied as if this were brilliant advice that she'd just been given for the first time.

I braced myself, and we set off on another nauseating trip, giving our seatbelts a workout as Karen tried to find a happy medium on the gas pedal. Up ahead of us, a car pulled into the lot.

"There's a car coming! What do I do?"

"Don't panic!" I cried, panicking on all of our behalves. "Just take your foot off the gas pedal and..."

She stomped on the brake again. We came to a screeching stop. I cleared my throat and said as pleasantly as I could, "That stop was a little better. My neck barely got injured at all." Also, remarkably, my nose was not bleeding.

The other car stopped, and the driver got out.

"Oh, it's P-Patty," I stammered, having accidentally almost called her by her nickname: Perfect Patty. I don't know who had given her that name originally, but it certainly fit. She was hands down the most impressive person I'd ever met. Despite the early hour, she looked fresh and wide awake, and as though she'd stepped from the pages of an L.L. Bean catalogue in her khakis and knit sweater. Seeing her, our PTA president, reminded me that the secretary/treasurer had called last night and left a message that there was "a crisis brewing." I'd simply cried, "Another one?" at my machine and decided to call her back later this morning.

Patty approached from the passenger side, and I rolled down my window, happy to see her friendly face. She was a trim, attractive woman in her early fifties, with bright blue eyes and dark blond hair that she wore in a flattering, short style. "Hi, Patty."

"Good morning, Molly," she said with a brilliant smile.

"I thought that might be you." She shifted her gaze and said, "Karen, you're learning to drive, I see. Good for you! I'm Patty Birch. We've never met, but I've heard so many terrific things about you that I feel like we have."

Karen smiled. "Nice to meet you. My mom says a lot of nice things about you, too."

I couldn't help but give Karen a double take at her unexpectedly gracious response. These days the only thing I could predict about her was that she was unpredictable.

Patty then looked past my shoulder and said, "Hi, Lauren. And...you must be Rachel, right?"

"Yes. Hello, Mrs. Birch."

Although she had kept her married name of "Birch," she was divorced and always corrected people to "Ms. Birch," but she said, "It's Patty to all of us young adults." She gave me a wink. "We still qualify as young, right?" She looked at Lauren, then at me, maintaining her smile.

At the moment, I truly didn't feel all that young; this driving lesson was rapidly aging me. I skirted the question and asked, "What are you doing out here at six o'clock on a Saturday morning?"

"Getting some work done. Kelly is at her father's house this weekend, so I'm not on breakfast duty. Besides, it's nearly seven-thirty."

"It is?" I glanced at my watch. She was right. We'd lost all kinds of time dawdling before we got out here and had spent quite some time on Rachel's lesson. "Time flies when you're having...fun." Or a series of minor heart attacks.

"The building's locked," Lauren said.

"Oh, I have my own set of keys. I can get so much done when the school's deserted like this." She turned her smile toward my daughter. "Karen, what do you think about driving so far?"

"It stinks. I've decided to wait till I'm thirty." She unfastened her seat belt. Without looking at me, she muttered. "Let's just go home, okay?"

"Oh, hey," Patty said. "Don't get discouraged. Would you mind giving me a crack at riding shotgun? I've taught half a dozen teenagers how to drive."

"You have six teenagers?" Karen asked incredulously.

"Only one of them was my own. I just have a knack for teaching people your age."

I hesitated, thinking this was above and beyond the call of our relationship, but Karen resolved my dilemma by saying, "Get out, Mom."

"We'll just go on a little spin around the campus, all right?" Patty said to Karen as Patty and I traded places.

"The entire campus?" Karen asked. "Dream on! I can't even get ten feet without making everyone sick to their stomach."

"Do you play the piano by any chance?" Patty asked.

"Yeah," Karen said slowly. "For eight years now."

"Wonderful! You're used to working the piano pedals, then. I'll have you driving before you know it."

Karen giggled and said, "That'd be great!"

Stepping on a piano pedal would have been a better analogy than crushing cockroaches. I'm sure I'd have come up with it myself, if a piano came equipped with an engine and a steering wheel. I bent down to speak to Lauren through my still-open window.

"Rachel, Lauren, do you want to wait here or do—"

"No way!" Rachel cried. "I'm gonna hang with Karen and Patty. Mom, you go keep Molly company."

"Answers that question," Lauren muttered as she got out beside me.

Patty said, "We'll be back in ten or fifteen minutes. Why don't you two just wait in my car so you can stay warm till we get back. All right?"

"Sounds good," I replied. It was downright chilly out here. We were having what was graciously referred to as a "warm" March for upstate New York, which only meant that areas such as this one, covered in black asphalt, had warmed enough to be free of ice and snow. But the sparrow I'd seen bathing in the puddle had to have been part penguin.

Lauren and I got into the front seat of Patty's Ford sedan and kept an eye on my Honda CRV. As grateful and relieved as I was to let somebody else help my daughter learn to drive, I felt a bit, well, jealous, too. Both teens were clearly enraptured by Patty's presence. Karen was nodding her head, as was Rachel, who'd scooted forward in her seat as they both sat with their attention riveted to whatever Patty was telling them. Short of smearing grape jelly on my face and dumping an ant colony over my head, there was no way I could capture those girls' attention so fully.

"Ever since I quit as secretary at the high school, I've lost track of the town's teens," Lauren said. "Didn't Perfect Patty's son graduate from Carlton recently?"

"Yes. He was valedictorian last year."

"That's right. I remember now. Where did he decide to go to college?"

"Harvard."

"Wow. I didn't realize that."

"She made a point of not telling anyone, unless you asked more than once, like I did. She also kept it out of the press release about his being valedictorian. Which she wrote herself." A bit of rancor had slipped into my voice, and I cleared my throat. "She said with the university's name recognition being what it is, just saying your child goes there makes it sound like you're bragging."

There was a pause. "Well, she's got a good point, I guess."

"She always does."

I could feel Lauren's eyes on me, and my cheeks warmed. In an oral argument with myself, I said, "She's a great PTA president, and I don't mind that she could give Martha Stewart cooking and arts-and-crafts lessons, and that everyone in this entire town loves her. But—"

"I wouldn't go that far. It's not like all of Carlton is enamored with her. Parents and teachers at the school are just excited about the possibility of winning a national PTA award. That's all. And, if we do, it's to all of our credit, not just hers."

"Sure, but to be honest with you, for once I really feel for Stephanie. She'd been PTA president for, what? Ten years? Then, two years ago, Patty moves into town and takes over as PTA president. Bam! The Carlton PTA instantly becomes a finalist for a prestigious award from national headquarters. And there's Stephanie, left behind to eat Patty's dust."

"Poor Stephanie. Couldn't happen to a nicer woman." Lauren's voice dripped with sarcasm.

"True, but still." I sighed. Karen waved and grinned as she drove past me, suddenly looking utterly at ease behind the wheel. "The thing is, had our positions been reversed just now, it never would have occurred to me to offer to help teach her child to drive. Does Patty have to be so much better a mother than I am? I mean, that's the one that really rankles, you know?"

Lauren averted her eyes and looked thoughtful, then finally said, "Remember that famous poem that starts: 'Go placidly ...' which someone put background music to, and it became a pop-hit when we were kids?"

"Yeah. I remember some of it...'Go placidly amongst the...turnips and collard greens...'"

"'Noise and haste,'" Lauren corrected.

"Oh, right. That's much better. But I was close."

"It mentions the wisdom of not comparing yourself with others."

"Right. I remember that part. Something about how there's always going to be people who are 'lesser and greater than you.' I should go reread it. Now that you reminded me the poem wasn't about strolling through a vegetable garden."

"All I'm saying is, regardless of how...astonishing Patty might be, you're a terrific mom."

"Oh, hey thanks. Fortunately, my kids tell me that all the time, so my self-esteem never sags."

Lauren chuckled a little. "Same here."

"And they say parenting teenagers is hard."

"But not for us." She held up her palm, and I gave her a high five. We sat back in our seats and stared through the windshield. My car, driven by Karen, had long since disappeared beyond this closest of school buildings on the large Carlton Central School campus. It hit me then just how many students this place held and how desperately I hoped that my two could come through without a single tragic event, and how unrealistic that hope was. In Lauren's and my graduating class—roughly the same size as Rachel's and Karen's—three of our friends had died in two separate accidents during our senior year.

Swallowing a lump in my throat at the memory, I told Lauren, "I'm not going to make it another four-plus years, till Nathan graduates from Carlton. When one of our kids made a bad choice, it used to just be a learning experience. Now, suddenly, bad choices are life-threatening...there's AIDS, riding around in cars with inexperienced drivers, alcohol and drugs. I want Karen and Nathan to socialize. I just wish they'd wait till they're in college, so I can hold on to the inane notion that what I don't know about can't hurt me."

"I know what you mean," Lauren replied. "If only blissful ignorance were an option."

"Here they come again. They're slowing down."

Karen managed to bring the car to a smooth stop. Patty, all smiles, emerged from my car just as Lauren and I emerged from hers.

She said quietly, "Molly, I hope I wasn't stepping on your toes just now. It's just easier to teach driving to someone other than your own child, and you were looking pretty exasperated."

Trust Perfect Patty to read my mind. Now I felt bad for having whined about my squashed toes. "Any help you or anyone else can give my daughter to teach her to be a good, safe driver is always appreciated."

"Thanks. Tell you what, two years from now when both of our younger children are going through this, let's trade duties. You can teach Kelly how to drive, and I'll teach Nathan."

I intended to reply: It's a deal, but was dumbstruck at the reminder that, two short years from now, I'd be going through this yet again with a second child.

Karen rolled down the window and called, "Hey, Mom? I've got stuff to do. So can we leave soon?"

"Okay. Just a minute." I returned my attention to Patty. "Thanks again, Patty."

"Anytime." She called out to Karen and Rachel, "I agree with you both about Adam and Rick. You're making wise decisions."

I gave a quick glance at Lauren, who gave me a shrug and shook her head. The boys' names meant nothing to her, either. "Adam and Rick?" I repeated.

"Never mind, Mom. You wouldn't understand."

"Actually," Patty immediately interjected, "your mom is one of the most understanding people I've ever met. So is your mom, Rachel. And don't hesitate to call me if you need any help with your trigonometry, Karen." She returned her attention to me. "I minored in mathematics," Patty explained, rolling her eyes teasingly.

We watched and waved as Patty got into her own car and drove over to the entrance of the high school. Making no move to get into our car yet, Lauren and I exchanged glances. After checking to make sure the girls had shut the windows again, I said quietly, "From the snippets of Karen's phone conversations I've overheard, Adam and Rick might be the ones code-named ' He Who Must Not Be Named' and ' Too Cute.'"

"Must be. I wonder which one is which." Lauren put her hands on her hips and said under her breath, "Maybe we should ask Patty."

"Knowing Patty and her strong sense of ethics, she might consider that a breach of confidence. Have you ever heard her say anything negative about her ex-husband or his new wife?"

"No. Have you?" Lauren asked.

"Nope. She moved here because she felt her kids needed to live near both parents. Even though he was transferred here after their divorce, and she had custody. And he'd dumped her for a twenty-year-old ski bunny. If Jim ever did something like that to me, there's no way I'd be able to relocate to his new town and never bad-mouth him."

"Me, neither. Not even close." We stood there in silence.

"Okay, Lauren, I'm just going to say this, and then, I swear, I'll go placidly strolling through a vegetable garden and mull over how petty I am to be so envious. The woman's too good to be true. Nobody can be that terrific. She's everything I wish I could be. And the worst part is, she's so darned likable, she's impossible to hate."

"My thoughts exactly, Molly. And you know what? That's what I hate that about her." The girls rolled down the front and rear windows and cried in unison, "Mo-o-om!"

"Duty calls."

I made Karen switch into the backseat so that Lauren could sit up front with me. Just as they fastened their seat belts, a BMW came zooming into the lot. I caught sight of the "Steffi" vanity plates and tried to hurry up and get into my seat, with the hopes of ducking out of view.

Too late. Stephanie had spotted me. She hit the brakes, then turned the wheel to race over to me, pulling her car to a screeching stop with her window just two feet from mine. She glared at me and gestured impatiently for me to roll down my window.

"Morning, Steph—"

"Have you seen Patty Birch, by any chance?"

"-anie." Gesturing at the high school building behind me, I said, "Yes, she just went into the—"

"I'm going to kill that woman!" Stephanie snarled. She drove off before I could reply.

© Leslie O'Kane


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