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Advanced level English - short story

Advanced level English short story - level B2 

For Elise  - a short story    

by Pamela Garza

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     Her name was Elise Toussaint. And as I looked up at her face, I couldn't help but feel regret. This emotion isn't the kind that settles after long thought; it slams you in the gut and knocks the wind out of you.
    I was called in by the warden of the Federal Prison for Women, who wanted me to attest to the fact that there were no more bruises or cuts on the body than there had been the day before.
    You see, I was the tracker that finally caught up with this little lady after she escaped and lead the marshals on a chase of 3 days and a hundred miles. Choppers, dogs, and men were called in from all over the county to apprehend this "desperado", this "prostitute", this convicted "drug lord" from a nearby state. Little did I know then that she was running for her life.
    "What is it, Coke?"
    The impatient voice behind me wanted to hurry things along. He wanted to get this lifeless piece of trouble out of his barracks, avoid the risk of scandal. Well, as a tracker, I don't like to be rushed; and when my name, Coke Bucknil, goes on a piece of paper that is to be taken as gospel, naturally, I take my time.
    "How'd she die?"
    "Broken neck. Can't you see? She hung herself."
    "The correct term is hanged. Her toes are touching the floor."
    "So? She's been there since 3 a.m."
    "Where'd she get all that cloth to make the rope?"
    "She used the bandages."
    Yes, I remembered. In her desperation to get away, she lead me through thick bramble, thorns, and muddy fields. She was suffering from exposure, scratches, bruises, and blisters from the bites of fire ants. How they must have hurt, but she never whimpered, not even when the officers pushed her into the mud to cuff her. She'd needed a lot of bandages.
    That image of a survivor rankled in me now, as I inspected the body of one who apparently gave up in suicide.
    "These red marks across her face, they weren't there yesterday, Warden."
    "Oh yeah. I guess she made them when she slipped the noose over her head.... Come on, Coke. You've been long enough."
    "Well, I'll have to mention those in my report."
    "Get this straight, Coke, if you even insinuate that this is anything but a suicide, I'll see to it that you never work in this town OR in this state again."
    "I didn't insinuate anything. D'you know something I don't know, Warden?"
    I enjoyed irritating him, but I didn't want to make him mad. 'This state' was a large territory not to ever work in again.
    As for the town, it has more than 200,000 people but only one newspaper, one whose reporters write what they're told to write, one that has an agreement with the college to suppress reports of gang activity so that parents will not send their little darlings somewhere else. And as I stood looking up at that lifeless face, a face that had been beautiful at one time, this and other cover-ups blitzed my mind. I turned away from the body, and left the building.
    One thing about trackers: like they know how to read the signs in the bush, they can read people. The warden meant what he said, and as I walked to my car thinking about Elise, I wondered if that mattered to me. If I hadn't seen her twice, I would have written anything he told me, even rhyming poetry. But the signs made me pause. The expression on her white face was not one of peaceful suicide. It was fear, pure and vivid fear. I'd seen that kind of fear before.
    Another sign. How could a woman as slight as she was jump one foot off a cot and break her neck? The act would only choke her. And... the marks on her face were not from the cloth noose. They were made by large hands that pressed the life out of her and broke her neck before they tightened the noose around her throat.
    "She was murdered." I said out loud, and drove out the gate. If I had a decent bone in my body, I'd go to the nearest Police Station and tell them my suspicions. But I had to think this through. My life, as mediocre as it was, still meant something to me. If I wasn't careful, I'd end up like her, because the power of two states was at work here.
    She'd been convicted as a drug dealer and prostitute. That was the rumor, anyway. But I don't pay much attention to rumors.
    I had my own theory about what really happened. When the idiot governor of this nearby state got tired of his mistress, he planted drugs on her, labeled her a prostitute, got her convicted, and sent her here; all because she knew too much of his organized crime activities. He had to get her out of his way so that when she was killed, he couldn't be blamed.
    With that in mind, I finally decided what I was going to do about the injustice done to Elise, and professionalism took over. From my small apartment, I did my tracking over the computer until 2:30 a.m. By that time, I had a plan of action that would take me over the next week.
    By 3 a.m. I had the Warden's mansion under surveillance from a respectable distance. I was looking for a particular activity and found it. I had a tracker's hunch I might find the governor's bodyguard from the nearby state, and I was right. In the early hours, the man emerged from the Warden's mansion. There was no need to follow him; I knew where he was going.
    By 4 a.m., I was home again. Settling with the warden was easy. I would use my "special-occasion" stationery. Handling it with plastic gloves, I wrote my report the way he wanted me to, activated the chemical, and slipped it in a protective plastic. I addressed the envelope, making sure it was FOR THE WARDEN'S EYES ONLY.
    A few hours later, I took a plane to a coastal resort where the governor had a residence. During my week there, there was quite a commotion, when coastguards brought in the bodies of the governor and his bodyguard who had drowned, quite inexplicably, during an afternoon fishing trip. How fitting that they should be together when it happened, I thought.
    Meanwhile, back home, the Warden also died suddenly, apparently of natural causes. Since he was easily replaced, I still had a job.
    One thing about trackers: When they feel that gut-wrenching regret, sometimes they do things for free. I did... for Elise.

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blisters: swollen lumps on the skin - bramble, thorns: plants with spikes and sharp points - bruise: damage under the skin -  bush: wild vegetation with small trees - choke: suffocate - chopper: helicopter - convicted: sentenced - cover-up: deliberate hiding of the truth - cuff: handcuff, tie one's hands - exposure: the consequence of being in too much sun or extreme conditions- gospel: the truth - insinuate: suggest, imply - rankle: distress, worry - rope: cord - slams you in the gut: hits you in the stomach -  stationery: writing paper   tracker: hunter of fugitives -

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For Elise

An interview: provide the questions : FOR ELISE Several months after the events in this story, an investigative journalist from New York came to interview Coke Bucknil about the story of Elise Toussaint. Here are Coke Bucknil’s answers to his questions; what were the questions?

  • When......   
  • When I caught up with her in the bush. 
  • Did you...... 
  • No, I had been told that she was a prostitute and a drug dealer. 
  • Why ......  
  • Because as soon as I saw her, I could tell that she was not that kind of person. 
  • Why...... 
  • Well you know, as I tracker, I know how to interpret people and situations. 
  • When...  
  • Next morning. 
  • And why.....  
  • He wanted me to attest to the fact that there were no new bruises on the body. 
  • And ....... 
  • Definitely. There were a lot. 
  • So what...
  • I asked him where they came from. 
  • And ......  
  • He claimed they came from the noose. 
  • Did.... 
  • Of course not; I’m a tracker. I could see she’d been strangled. 
  • So why...
  • Well, to be honest, I didn’t want to be the next victim. ...


Ideas for teachers :

Difficulty :

The difficulty scores for this text, notably the Flesch-Kincaid score, underestimate its complexity for non-native speakers of English. While this text is very easy to understand for native English speakers, notably in the USA, it contains colloquial language (such as I couldn't help but...) , imagery and cultural references that make it harder to follow for non-native speakers

Using this short story :

This story is a first-person narrative, told from the position of the "tracker" Coke Bucknil.  Some of the vocabulary may need explaining, though the meaning of many of the words that are maybe unfamiliar to students should be clear from the context.  Ask students to explain some of the vocabulary that is not explained in the vocabulary guide.
   For example what does settles mean in the first paragraph ?  What, logically, does the word warden mean ? This is probably a word that students have not met before, but its meaning should be very easy to work out. (It is related, etymologically, to the word guardian.... )  
   Note the difference between hung and hanged.  Hung means suspended (anything), hanged means died from hanging.

Creative writing/expression : 

Students should expand one of the scenes mentioned in this short story into a longer dialogue. In classic short story technique, many of the "scenes" are only evoked in the briefest of ways, for example: a) When the Warden asks Coke to come to the prison.  b) When the police ask Coke to track down the fugitive, etc.

Role play; the moral dilemma:
How innocent or guilty is Coke Bucknil? He is the hero of this story, yet he causes three people to die .... This could lead to an interesting role play situation. A TV chat show, with seven participants:
    Situation: Coke has been arrested, charged, and is now awaiting his trial. The whole story has come out, and is now dividing public opinion in the USA.


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Advanced level English resource

Level - Medium
IELTS Level :  5-6
Flesch-Kincaid  scores
Reading ease level:
80 - Fairly easy
Grade level: 4.2

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Who is James Bond ?
Sport: Sports, American style
Big red London buses
USA: Who was Buffalo Bill?
USA: Close encounters with a Twister  
And more:  More intermediate reading texts  
Selected grammar pages
Online English grammar
Nouns in English
Word order in English
Reported questions in English
Language and style 
Themed crosswords for EFL
The short story of English

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First published in Spectrum, the advanced level English newsmagazine.
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