The story so far:
What was it about this town that kept me up at night, that quickened my breath when I toyed with the idea of leaving? Phantoms were slinking around the sharp corners of my mind, just out reach of full disclosure. If knowledge equaled light, then what I felt in my mind was the sporadic pulse of a disco ball.
Jake and his eyes; pools of dark sincerity. If I didn’t believe what came out of his mouth that Friday afternoon, I surely was compelled to believe his eyes. I had until Monday to welcome death and it’s inescapable, everlasting, blessed nothingness. Maybe Jake was gifted, maybe he had some touch and simply saw that Monday would signal the conclusion of my endless suffering. Jake, of course, had no way of knowing how I suffered, but his words lingered, stole my sleep, soothed my raw ends like warm bandages. I chose to believe him. If only for hope that he was right.
Nothingness; something I’d longed for, something I sought like the phantom blips of light in the dusty corners of my mind, yet nothingness continued to resist my efforts. The Zero Effect, I called it. If I could get to zero, the pain would cease, the memories would be wiped clean from the walls of my heart and white silence would replace dull, red, pain. The images of my Julie, of Frank and the knowledge that I was, in part, responsible for their death, haunted me in every moment. It had come down to a choice; I could evacuate the Montessori school or Himes Park; the bomb would go off in one. My team and I chose the school. We chose wrong. Himes Park erupted less than twenty minutes later, and it would be mere hours before I found the note from Frank; Took Julie to the Park, be back before six. I ceased to exist that day, as did my will to live. Which was why I found Jake’s omen so compelling.
Though it was nearly ten a.m., I sipped lukewarm coffee on the front porch, wrapped in a quilt and focused on the small rise of roof tops over the hill. From my vantage point, I could see nothing but their peaks, a few chimneys and a lone spiral of smoke. The town was quiet, always quiet, and it’s people full of side-long glances and knowing smiles. The women seemed content to remain in the time-warp that secured their daily lives to kitchen duties and womanly jobs. The men were strong and suspicious and impossible to befriend. Except, of course, for Pete. Pete was perhaps, the only man I’d met in the town that cared for conversation with me. I only knew him Monday through Fridays, in the early hours of the mornings, before the school filled with the shuffling and sleepy bodies of children, but he was a friendly face. It would have surprised me to know that his charm ended with the ringing of the morning bell. It would have shocked me, had I known, that his janitorial duties lasted only the half hour before I arrived at the school, and ended the moment I closed my classroom door. I might’ve stomped my foot in denial if I had learned that Pete was not who he appeared to be. As it were, I had no reason to distrust him.
I doubted that Jake had any sort of gift. It was easier to believe that he did and that some extraordinary sight sent him images of my impending death, but reality told me that it wasn’t likely. What was likely; I was caught. My cover was blown, and thus, I had warranted a death threat from the ringleader of this towns poisonous activity. Jake would’ve overheard, so perhaps his father had a larger role than I’d thought.
The Division that shipped me out to these seemingly uneventful townships to eavesdrop and sleuth my way into their hidden agendas, hadn’t contacted me since six month after I had arrived here. Though it was unusual, I was ordered never to attempt contact, to wait. The Division was certain that there were smuggling operations in the hills of this sleepy town, but I wasn’t privy to it’s source, for my own protection. If I stumbled upon the crime, well, that was one thing. But my job was simply to infiltrate and find the cult, the group and turn suspicious names and organizations over to the Chief, when they asked for it. Was it guns? Drugs? There were options and in my stay here, I had come to only one sure conclusion; It was the men in the town, the Fathers, that kept a steady hand on whatever underground activity was going on here. The women were meek, the children were solemn and frightened and The Fathers of the town were the source.
My coffee had become cold and so had my arms, as the quilt had shifted off of my shoulders. How long had I sat here, contemplating the welcoming arms of death and the strange awareness that something grand and insidious chewed at the inside flesh of this town? I shivered, stood to head back into the warmth of the house, and caught sight of little Amy Turner coming up the hill.
How had I forgotten the invite to Amy for lunch? It must be nearly twelve, then. I waved to her, and she lifted her small hand in return. I thought of her sullen face, her mother’s averted eyes, and the sinking feeling in my gut that Amy was in trouble. I had a suspicion that whatever trouble boiled in the basements of this town, Amy’s family had both hands on the stirring spoon. Amy might be the one child that would connect the dots for me. The idea of fleeing this town, The Division, was too tempting, but it was Amy’s downcast eyes, pained expression and wilted spirit that seemed to keep me here, these last few months.
She made her way slowly to the porch, her hands stuffed into the pockets of an oversize sweater.
“Hi there, Amy. I’m running behind on lunch. You mind giving me a hand? We can make soup, to warm us up.”
“That’s okay, Ms. B. I really can’t stay. I just wanted to come say g’bye.” Amy’s eyes burned a hole in my shoes. My breath felt suddenly heavy in my lungs.
“Amy? Amy, look at me, please?”
She met my gaze with tentative, wet eyes. Despite the brisk air, and the half-mile hike to my house from hers, her cheeks were sallow and grey.
“Are you going somewhere, Amy?”
“No, Ms. B. But you are. I just wanted to say ‘bye.”
With slow, deliberate words, I measured out the only question I could ask, though Jakes chocolate eyes swam in front of my own, answering the question for me.
“Where am I going Amy?”
“Mother says I shouldn’t worry ‘bout you. But I do. Father and Oleander Grimes says they’ll be shipping you off to Hell in a hurry. By Monday, I heard. Mr. Grimes will be coming to visit tomorrow night.” Amy sucked a mouthful of cold air, coughed and pulled her hands from their pockets. She held out her tight fist.
“Amy. Come in the house. I need to talk to you.”
“No. I can’t. It’ll be worse for me next time, if I do. But take this,” and she shook her small fist, to indicate that she had something to give.
Into my stretched out hand, she dropped a ball of paper. “What is this?”
“It’s a map. To the edge of Meyerland woods, where the midnight train comes through tonight. You can get on there. They won’t see you. You will get on, Ms. B., won‘t you? You won’t try to stay here?”
“Who is trying to hurt me, Amy?”
With that, she shot off the porch, the tails of her too-large sweater trailing behind her.
The Zero Effect never included the faces of children, their supplicant natures and absolute acceptance of what they could not change. The Zero Effect, however inviting, would and could not protect those children, only offer solace for me, for my own pain. If the Zero Effect would save me from myself, would, in fact, erase the greatest pain of my life by way of blessed death, then who, I had to ask myself, would save these children?
The answer was obvious; I had no intention of jumping that train, or of dying at the hands of Oleander Grimes. As I hurried to grab my coat, I gave a silent prayer that Pete, my only friend, would be home.