The story so far:
After checking the bolt on the door, I returned to the flickering fire and bent down to lift the cup from which Jake had been drinking. Like most youngsters his sips were sloppy and a ring of cocoa remained like a chalk outline on the floor – a stubborn reminder of our recent conversation. I wiped it gently with one hand but it had already turned it into a sticky substance that would require the assistance of a damp cloth.
By now the heat from the burning stove had infiltrated every crack and crevice of the small space around me and yet when I looked down at my arms I could clearly see goose bumps – each tiny hair standing at attention. I straightened back up, walked into the kitchen and placed the dirty mugs in the sink. I was too pre-occupied to wash them immediately but felt no guilt as the agency always recommended leaving dirty dishes in the sink in order to better replicate reality – real people are not tidy. I glanced around my tiny kitchen and out into my living room. The whole house felt less like a home and more like a movie set. A staged environment designed by a team of experts to create the illusion of normality.
I made my way up the wooden stairs to my bedroom. The creaking of each step echoed loudly, enhancing the emptiness around me. Up until today the quiet had been calming and peaceful, but suddenly it evoked fear and paranoia. For the first time since I had arrived in this town, I removed my handgun from between my mattress and box spring and placed it in the drawer of my bedside table. Although Jake was just a young boy, his words were haunting and I no longer felt safe. I grabbed the old shoebox from the top shelf of my closet and sat down in the middle of my bed.
From within the shoebox I removed the large stack of Q-cards on which I had written my observations from the first day I had arrived in this town. Today had been a wake-up call. I had become too relaxed, let my guard down. I was relying on the FBI to process the information I was feeding them without attempting any analysis for myself. Today it became clear that I would need to better familiarize myself with the situation I was in if I wanted to avoid future danger.
I began by flipping through the cards looking for any notes I had made on Jake’s mother or father, but I found only a passing reference to Jake’s father at a dinner party I had attended during my second month. I then moved on to Amy, and her immediate family. Her mother and father’s names arose on various occasions but it was her uncle Christopher who really grabbed my attention. Christopher had been one of the townsfolk who had peaked my interest early on. He was extremely inquisitive upon my arrival – asking a slew of questions regarding my background, which I answered with my carefully rehearsed responses.
I separated any cards that contained references to Christopher and after half an hour had been able to determine that Christopher was Amy’s uncle on her father’s side. He had previously held work as a butcher, a mechanic, a janitor and most recently a handyman – but his real source of income seemed to come from playing cards. He maintained a close relationship with Stuart, the local barkeep, and was known as someone to avoid when he had hit the bottle too hard. His violent liquor-induced temper had been openly discussed on various occasions. Several years back Christopher had disappeared from town for almost five months, and his whereabouts during that time were either not known, or not divulged. I made a vow to discuss uncle Christopher over lunch with Amy the following day.
With my face as the canvas, I stroked the powder-covered brush under my eyes with the precision of an artist. My appearance betrayed the fitful nature of my sleep and in order to inspire confidence with my young student I felt it important to disguise my fatigue. Once the final touches of rouge and gloss were applied I curled my lips into a smile. I straightened my ruby cardigan and re-adjusted the pearls around my neck. By now I played this part well. Ms. B. Schoolteacher.
Just after noon a knock echoed through the house and I walked to the front door. The scene was set, sandwiches and milk already prepared and set out on the table, and crayons and paper placed to one side. Taking a cue from a film I had seen about a shrink, I began introducing crayons and paper to children several towns back. It was astonishing how candid youth could be when they were given tools to aid their expression.
I opened the door and found that my gaze fell not on the top of young Amy’s head, but rather on the tiny waist of Amy’s mother. I lifted my eyes to meet hers and saw instantly that her mood was hostile. She waited for me to speak first. “Mrs. Turner, how lovely to see you.”
I saw her eyes dart behind me to take in the lunch set out for two. “So it’s true.” She spoke to me but her eyes remained on the table. “You had the audacity to invite my daughter over for lunch without first consulting me.”
I was taken aback by the anger in her voice.
“My apologies Mrs. Turner. I assure you I did not mean to offend. In my former town it was very common for us teachers to invite our students over for lunch on Saturday when we felt they were struggling at all in the classroom.”
The fire blazed in her eyes and I knew instantly that the word ‘struggling’ had been a poor choice.
“Struggling? Ms. B let me assure you that if Amy is struggling in any way it is a direct reflection of your inadequate teaching. She is an exceptionally bright child.”
The emphasis she had placed on my name when she spoke made me shiver.
“Amy is absolutely one of my top students, I am not suggesting her struggles are academic. It is just that when she returned to class on Friday after being ill she was distant and didn’t want to talk to any of the other kids.”
It was clear that nothing I could say would diffuse the situation at this point. I attempted to find the right words to politely end the conversation before it got any worse but Mrs. Turner beat me to it.
“I suggest you stop poking your nose in other people’s business. Don’t think for a second that we haven’t been watching you. We know more about you than you think. These little games can only last so long. Just keep in that mind. We are getting tired of you, and when we get tired of someone we deal with it. Mark my words. You’d do best to back off. Leave Amy alone. Leave Jake alone.”
With that Mrs. Turner spun on her heels and walked towards her station wagon parked at the end of the street. From where I stood I could see the silhouette of a man in the driver’s seat. The form appeared taller and broader than Mr. Turner – and I suspected it was uncle Christopher. For the second time in two days I closed my door and noted the hairs on my arm standing straight up.