The Million Dollar Girl
A Novel

Robert Harris
Version Date: October 11, 2008

Chapter 24

When Amy arrived at the Math Department office to go to work, she noticed that Professor Elderberry, the department chair and the person who had hired her in the fall of her freshman year, was looking much more somber than usual. Usually, his lively eyes and gentle nature made her feel happy and welcome. He had always entertained her with his great sense of humor. Amy could not recall ever seeing him angry or unhappy. Now he was not exactly unhappy, but Amy could sense that he was concerned about something. Thinking that it was not her place to ask him about his somber mood, she started her work as usual, picking up some filing.

As she walked past his office, Elderberry said, “Amy, have you got a moment?”

“Sure.” She walked in, still hugging a pile of stuffed manila folders.

“Come in and close the door. We need to have a personal conversation.” Amy put the file folders down on the top of the filing cabinet just inside the office and closed the door. “Sit down,” he continued. “Now, I want you to promise me that you will keep this conversation strictly confidential.”

“Okay, I promise,” Amy said, simply. She looked around at the familiar objects on his desk and credenza and at the too many books crammed into the shelves of his bookcases.

“You’ve been working for me for about a year now. Isn’t that right? Most of your freshman year and now beginning your sophomore year.”

“Yes, that’s right,” Amy said, still not knowing where the conversation was going to go.

Then, in a more serious tone, Professor Elderberry asked, “Amy, do you respect me?”

“I’ve always thought well of you. Everyone likes you.”

“Have I treated you with kindness?”

“Of course. And I appreciate that. You don’t lose your temper.”

“Would you say, then, that we are friends in a way?”

Even though Amy still did not know where Professor Elderberry intended to go with this conversation, she felt somewhat alarmed. Perhaps her suspicions about Gina and Professor Miller were coloring her perceptions. Or perhaps just the promise of secrecy combined with the idea of being friends was unsettling. She answered carefully, “Yes, we are friends, I guess.” She wanted to add “in a professor-student sort of way,” but that seemed too cold and formal. She did not want to hurt Elderberry’s feelings, and so far, he had not stepped out of bounds.

Amy struggled to find a way to make things go the way she wanted. She noticed the photograph on his desk and turned it more directly toward him. “How’s your wife?” she tried to ask convincingly. Elderberry picked up the photograph and put it on the credenza behind him.

“Fine,” he said, in what she thought an odd tone.

Amy was now thinking to herself, “If he says, ‘Call me Nick,’ I’ll scream.” In spite of herself, a fantasy image ran through her mind, where she and Professor Elderberry were running along a beach holding hands. She almost shuddered visibly.

“So, then, we should be completely honest with each other.” Elderberry’s words snapped her out of her reverie.

“Completely honest.” How Amy hated this enormous, wide open generalization. “What will I do,” she thought, “if he makes an ‘inappropriate suggestion’ as Jennica calls it?” She said a quick prayer. “Lord, please don’t let Professor Elderberry tell me he loves me or ask for a date or worse.” Then she got the idea of answering in a way that might help derail any coming embarrassment. She told him, “I try to be completely honest with everyone, including my boyfriend,” she said. Telling him she had a boyfriend might help.

As a child, Amy had expected every prayer to be answered by the requested results. Prayers that were not answered according to her wishes were upsetting and cause for being out of sorts with God. Over the years, though, a few prayers that had been rejected had turned out to be real blessings. She had learned that sometimes No is an excellent answer. She had even prayed a few times, “Thank you God for answering No to that prayer.”

Now as an adult, Amy had concluded that Yes and No were only two of the possible answers. She now believed there were four. There is, “Yes, here you are,” the answer people usually want. There is, “No, that’s not in your best interest,” the answer that the humble understand best. There is, “Wait on that one,” the answer that both builds and requires patience. And then there is the fourth answer, which was to be the answer to Amy’s prayer today.

“I believe you are an honest person,” Professor Elderberry continued. “But I know how we all sometimes make mistakes. Is there something you want to tell me about a mistake you may have made regarding something in my office?” Amy had not the slightest clue what he was talking about. But at least her previous fears seemed unfounded.

“Something in your office?”

“Something that may have been taken from my office.”

“I assure you, Professor Elderberry, I would never take anything from your office.” Color began to appear in her cheeks. The fourth answer is the most amazing. It is, “Here is something altogether different.” It had happened to Amy before. An answer that she did not expect, did not imagine. Sometimes it was the answer to the prayer she should have prayed had she known what to ask for. And sometimes it was an answer that passes understanding.

“I know you wouldn’t do such a thing on your own. The question is, did you perhaps help anyone else take something from my office?”

In matters of personal integrity, Amy was not easy to fluster. She found strength in the arms of honesty, so the bit of color in her cheeks never turned into a blush of embarrassment. She did reveal how deeply she felt the accusation by lowering her voice. She looked into Professor Elderberry’s eyes and said softly but clearly, “Absolutely not.” Her eyes glistened from some would-be tears she refused to release. She continued, “I hope I’ve shown that I’m a very ethical and trustworthy person. I would never knowingly help anyone steal something from you—or from anyone else.”

Professor Elderberry’s experience over the years had taught him that the guilty will often deflect an accusation by referring to the absence of proof. Instead of saying, “I did not steal that,” a guilty person may say instead, “There is no evidence that I stole that.” Amy had “failed” that guilty test by clearly denying the theft. Elderberry had this in mind as he continued.

“The fact remains,” he said, “that it appears that someone has stolen copies of exams from my office. During the day, the department door and sometimes my office door are open. But the filing cabinet is always locked. There are two keys: mine and yours. The exams are kept locked in the filing cabinet.”

“I always try to keep the cabinet locked and I’ve never lent my keys to anyone,” Amy said, with just enough emphasis on never to sound quite confident of the assertion.

Another thing Elderberry knew was that the guilty will often become elaborately creative in suggesting alternative explanations of how the wrongdoing might have occurred. Amy could have suggested that Professor Elderberry had forgotten to lock the filing cabinet, that a copy center worker had colluded to make an extra copy of the exams, or that Elderberry had inadvertently left the exams on his desk at some point. The girl sitting before him looking hurt and troubled had suggested none of these red herrings.

Elderberry thought to himself, “She’s just cut off an out for herself. She could have said she lent her keys to a few people for various reasons.” The man began to think he might be torturing an innocent girl, so he decided to see how she would react to the one piece of evidence he did have.

“Amy, I’d like you to read this note and tell me what you think,” he said, handing her a small piece of paper with a few handwritten lines on it.

Dear Dr. Elderberry:
Last night in the Cave I overheard two guys talking about getting advance copies of an exam from your office. They mentioned getting help from Amy Herbert. I do not know the guys.
   A Friend

A third truth that experience with cheating issues had taught Professor Elderberry is that the hardened guilty sometimes become too quiet or too vocal, saying nothing or protesting too much, while the soft guilty, especially the women students led astray by temptation or love, often break down and sob out their confession once enough evidence shows that their deed is known. Amy was clearly not hardened. Elderberry knew enough about her to be certain of that. She did not protest with a lengthy, dramatic, and phony, “No, no, no, no, no.” But so far, she had not broken down, either. The careful, analytic, and humane professor waited to see what she would say.

Oddly enough, Amy’s first thought as Professor Elderberry reached the note across the desk and let her read it was, “I’m going to have another nightmare. I just know I’m going to have another nightmare.”

Amy shook her head and let the note fall on the desk. She slumped a little and looked weary, as if she thought protest was futile.

“Professor Elderberry,” she said, sounding as tired as she looked, “I did not and would not ever help anyone get advance copies of an exam. I know that is cheating and that is wrong.”

Elderberry’s expression was much kinder than she expected. He looked almost as if he believed her, or wanted to.

“I have no clue how to explain this note,” she continued. “You probably know I’ve been accused of plagiarism, too, and I can’t explain that either, even though I didn’t do it. I don’t know what is going on. My life is in the pits right now.”

Elderberry was struck by the fact that Amy mentioned the plagiarism charge, which he had not heard about. No cheater in his experience had ever used an additional accusation as part of a defense. He suddenly found her comment almost amusing. Such a naïve innocence, he thought.

“It almost sounds as if someone is out to get you,” he said, with a slight smile.

“I know,” Amy replied, seriously.

Professor Elderberry knitted his brow a little. “Amy,” he said softly, “I think I want to believe you. I will accept your word, for now, that you are innocent.” Amy moved back in her chair slightly and relaxed her shoulders a little. “Tell me. Do you live in the dorms?”

“Yes, Pelletier Hall. Room 204. It’s on the card I filled out for you.”

“And where do you keep your keys when you are in your room?”

“In my purse, usually.”

“Do you ever leave them on your desk or toss them on the bed while you go down the hall or to the bathroom?”

“Not usually. Maybe once in awhile,” she said, being strictly honest. As everyone knows, keys have a way of relaxing in the oddest of places and are often found where their owners would swear they never put them. It would be impossible, then, for Amy to swear that her keys were always obediently in her purse.

“So maybe once out of a hundred times, you left your keys on your desk while you were in the shower, and a roommate or a friend might have come in and borrowed them without your knowing it?”

“When I take a shower,” Amy said with more emphasis than before, “the outside door is locked.”

“What about your roommates?”

“Markayla is my best friend from high school. I’ve known her for five years. She’s one of the most honest people I know. And she wants to be a lawyer, so I’m sure she would never jeopardize her chances of getting into law school. And besides,” Amy added as an afterthought, “I doubt she knows two guys on campus. She studies a lot and isn’t interested in guys right now.”

“Any other roommates?”

“Well, Tina—.” Amy stopped. How could Amy explain Tina? “And Tina is very shy,” she said, “and doesn’t interact much. I don’t think she could do anything like what you are suggesting.”

Amy was feeling a weird sense of déjà vu by talking about Markayla and Tina as possible suspects. This was the same discussion she had had about the plagiarism issue. Could there be a connection? It was crazy to think so. But why was the world insisting on accusing her of cheating all of a sudden?

“You said something about a boyfriend,” Professor Elderberry said, interrupting Amy’s brief reflection.

She had already forgotten that she had used that term. “Um, yes, Matt,” she said, almost sheepishly.

“Is he in 318?”

“No, he’s an Ag major.”

“Tell me, then, have you finished recording all the grades for the last exam?”

“For calculus?”


“Uh huh. They’re in your gradebook.”

Professor Elderberry took the gradebook out of his desk. He still used a paper gradebook instead of a spreadsheet to make it easier for his student workers to carry around and record grades. Or perhaps it was in part because he was just a little old fashioned, and he liked the tangible character of a grade record that could be paged through. He even liked the smell of the paper.

He flipped to the tab with the grades for Math 318 and went over to the column for the latest test. He ran his finger down the column.

“Did you notice anything unusual about these grades?” he asked.

“It seemed to be pretty much the usual spread for a first exam,” Amy said. “I think the bottom was lower than usual.”

“Did Don grade these tests?” asked Elderberry, referring to the graduate student who graded most of Elderberry’s tests for him.

“Yes, he handed me the stack himself.”

“Ninety two looks like the highest. Valerie Wang has lived up to her quiz scores. And there’s Becky with a not unexpected seventy.” Becky had been batting her eyelashes at Elderberry during almost every class so far this term. Now he knew why. She wanted some extra credit to push her over the C minus and into something stronger. Too bad she did not know she was wasting calories. “Four percent,” Elderberry continued, aloud. “Ouch.”

Elderberry was quickly becoming convinced that something was not adding up. There were no obviously high scores from students who had been weak on the quizzes. The scores on the test seemed to be quite consistent with the quiz scores, except for two students who had been mediocre on the quizzes but earned single digit scores on the test. That was not the sign of taking advantage of stolen exams.

“I’ll tell you what, Amy,” Professor Elderberry said at last. “I need to do some more investigating and thinking about this. I want to look over the test papers and see if I can resolve some issues. Meanwhile, let’s just continue as we were.”

“You mean you’re not going to fire me?” Amy asked, a little surprised.

“Oh, no, Amy. In fact, I’m sorry if I’ve upset you. There’s something about you that tells me you are a good girl. That you haven’t done anything wrong. It just shows.” Then he added, silently to himself, “I hope I’m right.” He had been deceived before by putting too much confidence in apparently honest and open students. They were always hard to read. But he was still willing to take another chance on what seemed a reasonable trust.

“Thank you.” Amy wondered whether she was going to lose it right then. That choking, tingly feeling that says, “One big load of tears, coming right up,” gripped her body. She rose, said, “Thank you,” again and walked quickly out of his office. Out the department door.

Elderberry leaned back in his chair. It squeaked. He put his hand to his face and gazed unseeingly at a knick knack on one of his shelves. “Four percent,” he thought. “How could anyone get four percent on the first test of the term, when so much of it is simple review?”


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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com