"You pass," he told me with a grunt. I could see he wasn't entirely happy, and that made me stick my chin up in pride. But he'd still exercised his authority over me, and that was good enough for him, I guess.
"Now," he said, sitting heavily back into his chair and fishing something out of the pocket. "Let's pick up where we left off."
With theatrical flair, he placed the damnable stone at the center of the desk, capturing my attention.
Ugh. Such a typical power move, reminding me of my embarassment with the stone on my very first day. That was the first time I realised how vulnerable I was, how easily I could be displaced from my coveted teaching position.
I've never been one to cower in fear of past embarassments, but oddly enough, the stone always brought me back to the same mindspace. All of a sudden I felt like a helpless, incompetent schoolgirl - like my only hope to retain my job was for nobody to notice how incompetent I was.
I kept my gaze on the stone, squirming uncomfortably. No wonder Burns decided to use it every day, if it unsettled me so easily. He liked to have me stare at the stone while instructing me in proper workplace etiquette, as he liked to call it.
I should always call him Sir. I should always be prim and proper in my posture, my voice should be kept unassumingly low, and each morning I would be back here for another professional training session with him. Contextually, I was to submit myself to a clothing inspection.
I knew all of this already, and I only half-listened... except that made anxiety spike through my chest, as I realised that my job could literally hang on whether I followed Burns' instructions or not. Besides, they weren't always exactly the same.
To me, it seemed like he added a new instruction every few days.
He must have noticed my panic and confusion, because he broke off his recitation of my duties.
"I know this can be a bit overwhelming for a new employee," he said, with the condescending tone overbearing men always get with women they underestimate. I gritted my teeth in anger. "But it's easier than you think, trust me. Just look at the stone, and listen carefully."
And so I did. I focused on the stone - it didn't make the fear for my job go away, on the contrary, it intensified it - but my anger receded to a secluded corner of my brain. It was just as powerful, I was simply ignoring it for now.
It threatened to rear its head again when, in a spike of consciousness, I heard Burns say that I "should always respond deferentially to male aggression and authority".
What kind of bullshit instruction was that? That had nothing to do with the workplace at all! Hell, it didn't even directly relate to Burns - he had power over me because he was my boss, not because of his gender!
Still, I had to calm down. I had to keep my job. That was my priority. I could behave as I wished when Burns wasn't looking, and I'd keep being the feminist egalitarian I've always been, no matter what he had to say in here. I just had to put up with him to keep teaching here. That was all.
And with that final rationalisation, I oriented my focus back to the stone.
And let Burns' words worm their way into my mind.
By the time I left his office, ready for class, I was nominally free - but I still had to contend with a strange, yet now familiar emptiness inside. No matter what anybody else tells you, being afraid all the time is exhausting.
I felt like I was walking on a tightrope every day, trying to balance Burns' encroachment of my personal autonomy while still keeping my job. All this stressing about survival ensured that I had very few mental energies left to do my, you know, actual job.
I once dreamed of standing before a classroom, it was my element. Now, I kept feeling a little tug in my brain, pointing me back towards my anxieties, even when I was teaching.
Still. Cindy's class was up next, and she threw me a radiant smile when I entered the classroom. Her nemesis, Irene, was staring daggers at her, but I was proud of little sis for standing up for herself. The Cooper sisters had a go-get-it attitude, and let nobody doubt that!
That smile warmed me up inside a little. Not all was lost yet, not by a long stretch of the imagination.
Besides... I was young. And Burns wouldn't be here forever.
No matter his antics, I would endure.
I launched into a lecture on Chaucer and Bath. Just doing this made me feel so much more like myself. The vocabulary I had to use, the arguments I made, the past knowledge I recalled and how it connected to my own perspective... it was rinvigorating.
It didn't kill the fear. But it gave me a little bit of hope.
About halfway through the lecture, however, I received my first student challenge of the day. And of course, it had to be from Nick fucking Foster...
He lifted his hand in the air, with a wicked grin on his face, loudly chewing on gum all the while. I saw his eyes darting this way and that - checking whether the rest of the class was looking at him.
He probably thought himself incomparably subtle, but really, he was an open book. That body language always preceded one of his class-clown stunts.
I'd always shot him down in the past - even slapped his jock ass with a couple detentions where they hurt the most, making him miss two games. Unfortunately, ever since those detentions, he had decided he was on a personal mission to make my teaching life a living hell.
Without waiting for me to acknowledge him, he started speaking over me, with classic jock confidence.
"That's cool and all, teach, but I need a toilet break. Be right back!"
That wasn't even phrased as a request, let alone a polite one! He couldn't just get up and leave the room! I fumed, rallying my focus to shoot him down and maybe slap him with a third detention...
But then I remembered Burns' words.
You will always defer to male aggression and authority...
And here was a male specimen - in fact, a peak example of toxic masculinity - undermining my authority in the classroom, and being aggressive with me.
Surely this wouldn't count? Surely Burns would want me to do my job, and do it well. That was the whole point of him exercising his stern authority over me. It was slimy, gross, and demeaning, but it was all about keeping things orderly.
I felt stuck between a rock and a hard place. Did I risk my job by letting Nick Foster walk all over me? Or did I risk it by standing up to him?
The fear and the indecision paralysed me. Maybe, with an extra few minutes, I would have come to a decision, but Nick didn't give me the luxury of time. He simply stood up, and made to leave.
"Five minutes," I blurted out, trying not to lose control of the situation - but I said that in a ridiculous whisper of a voice I didn't even know I was capable of.
"Whatever," Nick said, his grin now extending from ear to ear.
As the classroom door slammed behind him, I could see Cindy's eyes narrow in my direction. Behind her, Irene sat smiling. The optimism I felt during class evaporated at the sight, and as I contemplated my future, the only emotion I could muster was dread.
John Burns had to give it to Cathy: she was smart.
He'd known how the stone worked, in theory. He'd known it wouldn't simply enslave Cathy for him, that he'd have to saddle-break her the old-fashioned way. But he hadn't fully grasped what that meant, in practice.
The clothing inspections were a case in point.
The stone filled its victim with irrational fear - in his estimation, Cathy's brain was filtering it as fear of losing her job. That was all well and good, an excellent lever to manipulate any subject into compliance.
But... it had its limits.
When he asked Cathy to adopt a slutty dress code, he'd inadvertedly created a conflict of instructions. She couldn't flatly refused - it would threaten her job. But she also couldn't go all the way like he wanted, because that would also threaten her job.
In that narrow space between two contradictions, she'd found a compromise that gave him what he wanted, but still gave her the professional respectability she clearly valued.
Smart. John was impressed.
Of course, that just made it even more sadistically fun to break the girl, and put her in her place.
He smiled to himself, wiping a sheen of sweat from his brow. Cathy still underestimated him, even now that he had his hooks sunk into her to levels that she would have considered unimaginable before being influenced by the stone.
She thought he'd be frustrated by her defiance.
She didn't understand. He wasn't out for some mindless diversion before retirement. Oh no.
He was playing for keeps.
Every little setback like this simply taught him more about the stone, about how it functioned. It was a learning opportunity. Cathy might feel content for now, but he was only going to get better at it.
His grip on her would continue to tighten. Her room for maneuver would continue to shrink. He simply had to figure out how to leverage the stone-induced fear into even more humiliations. How to sap her confidence, so he could really begin the process of destroying her.
He leaned back in his chair, staring at the ceiling, and a smile started tugging at his lips.
An idea was forming in his mind. One he liked very much.
The following morning, I was back in Burns' office.
After the humiliating experience in the classroom yesterday, I could notice that my outward behaviour was more subdued, if only by a little. I felt undermined in my confidence. I knew I'd get it back - it was naive of me to expect everything to be smooth sailing from the very first day, I suppose.
But still, yesterday's events weighed on my mind as Burns once more inspected my clothing. Once again, it was sexy, but professional. Just thinking about this small victory actually reinvigorated my spirits a little.
I was still Cathy fucking Cooper. I wouldn't break so easily.
Burns stepped away from me and returned to his chair... and that's when I first noticed that something was wrong.
There was something... obscene in the way he sat back into his chair, leering at me with the self-satisfied grin of the cat who got the cream.
"You know, Cathy," he said, his fingers rubbing the stone on the desk. Which instantly commanded my full, unwavering, and somewhat terrified attention. "I think I should put you on academic probation."
"No!" I croaked, blushing at how pathetic I sounded. Was this about yesterday's confrontation with Nick? How had he got wind of that already?
I gathered myself, but only a little. I realised I sounded like a petulant child as I blurted out, "Sir, why? I've only just started!"
"Your performance thus far hasn't been very satisfying," he said, lifting the stone in his fingers, playing with it. Each spin between his deft fingers reminding me that my entire career depended on this man.
This annoying, infuriating, sexist man who refused to give me specifics about what I had supposedly done wrong. How could I even improve myself if he refused me any feedback?
I went pale. Without feedback, no self-improvement. And without self-improvement...
"Please, Sir," I asked, my voice laced with panic, "give me feedback! Give me a chance to get better!"
Burns made an exaggerated show of giving my idea fair consideration. Stroking his chin, he said, in a wry tone, "I suppose there's a way you could convince me to give you more time to prove yourself. Extend my review, so to speak."
He gave me a long, plaintive look.
Ah. So this is what this was about, then.
Of course he wasn't giving me any feedback. There was no feedback to give.
But did that change my situation, even by one bit? My professional future still depended on his approval. And his approval depended on...
Even now, his lecherous impulse shone brightly through his leering face.
I didn't need to guess at what he was suggesting. The thought alone made me flinch in terror. I wanted to get out of the chair, scream, and get out of his office.
I wanted to sue him for sexual harassment. Denounce him on Twitter. Bring the entire #MeToo wrath down upon his sweaty balding head. Barely a week of inappropriately bossing me around, and he was already leveraging his authority to get sexual favours? What a fucking pig.
But I did none of that.
I watched the stone.
A part of me - a small, remote, very frightened and very girly part of me - knew that so many before me had gone up against him, and failed. Was I really willing to risk it? What if I lost my job and the harassment complaint went his way? No one would ever even consider hiring me again!
The walls were closing in around me. It felt like Burns was shutting off every other option available to me by doing nothing, except sitting in the chair and playing with his damn stone.
With a gulp, I placed my purse on the empty chair in front of me, walked my way around to Burns' side of the desk... and descended to my knees.
Deep in the turmoil of what was without doubt my first instance of sexual abuse in the workplace, and just a week into my employment, I felt a weirdly detached sense of calm. Like I was an observer outside my own body.
I was dissociating. I could see the significance behind my act. Here I was, dressed in clothing chosen by my boss, being threatened with termination, and exploited for sexual favours without my consent.
Here I was, kneeling before a man. It was hugely significant. Just kneeling to give a blowjob is a practical thing. But kneeling to give your boss a blowjob you don't want to give, well... that's submission.
Worse than that. It's gender-coded submission.
It's also criminal.
Time stretched and dilated around me. It felt like ages before my knees hit the floor, and they did so with a thump whose finality made my heart race.
Somehow I felt that if only I could prevent the stone from intruding into my thoughts all the time, I'd have a clear enough head to get up and walk away. To make full use of my rights. To get his ass thrown in jail.
But that was silly, of course. The stone was just an object, it had no actual ability to influence me. It's just that at this point I associated it with Burns' power plays. I was giving in because I was weak, what other explanation was there?
I always swore myself that I wouldn't take this lying down if it ever happened, and yet here I am, on my knees, staring up at Burns' curved belly while his hands fish his cock out from his pants.
He was bigger than I expected - not that it did anything for me, of course. This wasn't porn.
Still, a part of me was well aware of what this must look like. This large, fleshy man towering above me in his leather chair, and me, the small girl out of her depth, kneeling most femininely before him.
Looking up at him, with his cock front and centre in my field of view.
Seen from above, his thighs would frame my face, and I would seem to be kneeling in worship at the altar of cock. Placing myself below it, in a powerful symbol of subjugation.
The visual image made me grit my teeth so hard that even Burns could hear it. The strong, musky man-smell emanating from his cock - already at full mast - assaulted my nostrils, the way he would soon assault my mouth.
I felt violated in so many different ways.
"Sir," I said feebly, in a weak attempt to stave off the inevitable, his cock already dangling mere inches from my lips. "I have a boyfriend..."
The appeal itself was desperate, and wrong in its own way. My own lack of consent should have been enough. Citing my boyfriend as if he was the male who owned me, and Burns was supposed to respect him rather than me, was a defense strategy straight out of the patriarchy's playbook.
But it was my only hope.
Burns stared down at me with a twinkle in his eyes. "Hopefully that means you're qualified for this!" He laughed, infinitely amused by his own joke, apparently. "Now start sucking."
The words hit me like a whiplash. The humiliation was absolutely devastating. I was mortified. What would Cindy say if she knew this?
Then there was the bit about being qualified. The truth was, I never gave Richard blowjobs, or let him penetrate me for that matter. I thought of traditional male penetration as inherently humiliating and patriarchal.
He usually ate me out, and I returned the favour by jerking him off. That was all. He chomped at the bit of course, but his conservative upbringing meant he too was ultimately fine with postponing sex, if for diametrically different reasons from mine.
He just thought we'd wait until marriage and then all bets would be off. I told him that wouldn't be the case, but Richard can be one hell of a selective listener.
Still. Now I had a problem. Burns' words implied I would have to do a good job at sucking him off, or he might simply not grant me an extended review. My career literally depended on this sexual act, a thought that horrified me down to my core.
I closed my eyes, and counted my breaths. This was for my job. I could break free of him eventually. I just had to push to the end. So I bent forward, and got to work.
I'd never done this before. I let the tip past my lips, closing my eyes against the earthy taste, and gave a few timid sucks. I knew I would have to do better than that if I didn't want him to take matters into his own hands.
This wasn't going to get better on its own. I had to get it done. Fighting my own impulses, I forced myself to take more of him in my mouth. I found myself wishing he had a smaller dick - that would make my job easier, at least.
As it was, I had a few inches into my mouth, and it was quite uncomfortable already.
I sucked on it like a lollipop, swirling my tongue around the head. Trying to mimick what I'd occasionally seen in porn back when I was still watching it, I tried to bob up and down - very small, timid movements though.
"Seriously?" Burns said. "You're so bad at this." Immediately his hands cradled my head, gripping my hair, holding me fast. Then, he surged forward, deeper into my mouth.
I tried to protest, but could only let out a feeble squeal. I raised my tiny fists and used them to beat futilely against his thighs - but all I achieved was to feel even more pathetic. I dropped my hands down in consternation, as his hands started moving my head up and down his cock.
It was so demeaning. Not only was he making me suck his cock, apparently I was bad at it as well? All I could do was try not to gag, be careful with my saliva, and try not to get too dizzy as he manhandled my face into becoming his masturbatory aid.
"Look up, bitch," he said from above. "Let me see those eyes."
I scowled at him from below, trying to stare daggers at him, trying to picture the moment he would be thrown in jail forever. But I failed to conjure the image. All I saw was his victorious smirk.
"Remember," he said, "you still have to earn that extended review."
I felt the defiance drain out of my eyes, as panic seized me again. In two heartbeats my angry expression had turned into a supplicating one, as I pleaded to him with my big doe-eyes to please be gentle on me.
I could tell that he saw the change in my demeanour. His pace accelerated, his hands now pushing me deeper down onto his cock, which was now poking at the entrance to my throat.
"That's it," he said from above me, throwing his head back. "Finally where you belong."
I squealed in anger, humiliation, and pain. At that moment, Burns wasn't thinking of me as a person - I was just a warm hole he could use for his own relief. The worst part was, I was feeling the same way.
Soft and weak and open and feminine, a plaything in the hands of a dominant male figure. This went against everything I believed about my own person, my gender, and my role in the workplace.