Darkest Fear Page 40

“How long have you taught here?” Myron asked.

“I’m in my forty-third year.”

“Wow.”

“Yes.”

“I guess you’ve seen lots of changes?”

“In kids? Almost none. Children don’t change, Mr. Bolitar. A five-year-old is still a five-year-old.”

“Still innocent.”

She cocked her head. “ ‘Innocent’ isn’t the word I would use. Children are total id. They are perhaps the most naturally vicious creatures on God’s green earth.”

“Strange outlook for a preschool teacher.”

“Just an honest one.”

“So what word would you use?”

She thought about it. “If pressed, I’d say ‘unformed.’ Or maybe ‘undeveloped.’ Like a picture you’ve already taken but haven’t processed yet.”

Myron nodded, though he had no idea what she meant. There was something about Peggy Joyce that was a little, well, scary.

“Do you remember that book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten?” she asked him.

“Yes.”

“It’s true, but not in the way you think. School removes children from their warm parental cocoon. School teaches them to bully or be bullied. School teaches them how to be cruel to one another. School teaches them that Mommy and Daddy lied to them when they told them that they were special and unique.”

Myron said nothing.

“You don’t agree?”

“I don’t teach preschool.”

“That’s sidestepping, Mr. Bolitar.”

Myron shrugged. “They learn socialization. That’s a hard lesson. And like every hard lesson, you have to get it wrong before you can get it right.”

“They learn boundaries, in other words?”

“Yes.”

“Interesting. And perhaps true. But you remember when I was giving the film-processing example earlier?”

“Yes.”

“School only processes the picture. It doesn’t snap it.”

“Okay,” Myron said, not wanting to follow her train of thought.

“What I mean is, everything is pretty much decided by the time these children leave here and enter kindergarten. I can tell who will be successful and who will fail, who will end up happy and who will end up in prison, and ninety percent of the time I’m right. Maybe Hollywood and video games have an influence, I don’t know. But I can usually tell which kid will be watching too many violent movies or playing too many violent games.”

“You can tell all this by the time they’re five years old?”

“Pretty much, yes.”

“And you feel that’s it? That they don’t have the ability to change?”

“The ability? Oh, probably. But they’re already on a path, and while they may still be able to change it, the majority do not. Staying on the path is easier.”

“So let me ask you the eternal question: Is it nature or nurture?”

She smiled. “I get asked that all the time.”

“And?”

“I answer nurture. Know why?”

Myron shook his head.

“Believing in nurture is like believing in God. You might be wrong, but you might as well cover your bases.” She folded her hands and leaned forward. “Now, what can I do for you, Mr. Bolitar?”

“Do you remember a student named Dennis Lex?”

“I remember all my students. Does that surprise you?”

Myron didn’t want her going off on another tangent. “Did you teach the other Lex children?”

“I taught them all. Their father made a lot of changes after his book became a bestseller. But he kept them here.”

“So what can you tell me about Dennis Lex?”

She sat back and regarded him as though seeing him for the first time. “I don’t want to be rude, but I’m wondering when you’re going to tell me what this is all about. I’m talking to you, Mr. Bolitar—and breaching confidences, I suspect—because I think you’re here for a very specific reason.”

“What reason is that, Ms. Joyce?”

Her eyes had a steely glint. “Don’t play games with me, Mr. Bolitar.”

She was right. “I’m trying to find Dennis Lex.”

Peggy Joyce kept still.

“I know this sounds weird,” he went on. “But as far as I can tell, he fell off the earth after preschool.”

She stared straight ahead, though Myron had no idea at what. There were no photographs on the walls, no diplomas, no drawings by little hands. Just cold wall. “Not after,” she said finally. “During.”

There was a knock on the door. Peggy Joyce said, “Come in.” The young hall monitor, Miss Simmons, entered with a little boy. His head was down and he’d been crying. “James needs a little time,” Miss Simmons said.

Peggy Joyce nodded. “Let him lie on the mat.”

James eyed Myron and left with Miss Simmons.

Myron turned to Peggy Joyce. “What happened to Dennis Lex?”

“It’s a question I’ve been waiting for someone to ask for more than thirty years,” she said.

“What’s the answer?”

“First, tell me why you’re looking for him.”

“I’m trying to find a bone marrow donor. I think it might be Dennis Lex.” He gave her as few details as he could. When he finished, she put a bony hand to her face.

“I don’t think I can help you,” she said. “It was so long ago.”

“Please, Ms. Joyce. A child will die if I don’t find him. You’re my only lead.”

“You spoke to his family?”

“Only his sister Susan.”

“What did she tell you?”

“Nothing.”

“I’m not sure what I can add.”

“You could start by telling me what Dennis was like.”

She sighed and neatly arranged her hands on her thighs. “He was like the other Lex children—very bright, thoughtful, contemplative, perhaps a bit too much so for so young a child. With most students, I try to get them to grow up a bit. With the Lex children, that was never an issue.”

Myron nodded, trying to encourage.

“Dennis was the youngest. You probably know that. He was here the same time as his brother Bronwyn. Susan was older.” She stopped, looked lost.

“What happened to him?”

“One day he and Bronwyn didn’t come to school. I got a call from their father saying that he was taking them on an unplanned vacation.”

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