The early morning air reached into my jacket as I walked the lonely streets. It was still dark, but I recognized signs of life in our sleepy little town. The sweet smell of wood smoke tickled my nostrils, urging my steps forward along the road to the school. I passed the cemetery, fighting the urge to turn and investigate the headstones. Ridiculous desire for these pre-dawn hours. My thoughts swirled in my head, like the wind whistling around me. Anticipation? Premonition? Most likely frustration at my continued presence in this county.
I arrived at the school, waved at the night janitor, who’d grown accustomed to my early morning appearances. “Mornin’ Pete.”
“Good morning, Ms. B! How are ya?” His weathered cheeks lifted in a grin. “Still ain’t found someone to keep you warm these cold nights? I could give ya a run for your money.” He wiggled his eyebrows, and I returned the mock banter.
“And face the wrath of your lovely wife?” I winked at him. “I don’t think so.” The old man’s laugh followed me, but a pang tugged my heart at the reminder of what I had lost. Time had not healed this wound. Still, I kept a smile plastered on my face, waved, and made my way down to the classroom.
I turned on the light and moved to the calendar. Another day crossed off, another day moving on… Today marked the anniversary of my arrival here – the longest I’d stayed in one place since I started this crazy mess. I had been assigned to many Podunk towns like this over the years, flushing out corruption in leadership, perverts, drug factories, and numerous other indiscretions within months. I had already fed the FBI a myriad of morsels about this community, but for some reason they hadn’t pulled me. I could only assume that they were looking for something greater than the tidbits I had gathered.
Why I had been chosen for this task was beyond me. It seemed that my gift of discernment and ability to adapt had caught the attention of someone in authority. And I suppose I had agreed to it as a way of punishing myself for surviving the attack on my own small town so many years ago, while my husband and daughter had not. The pain of that memory was so agonizing to bear that I was eager to strip myself of that identity, and then the next, and the next, until I was reduced to only a shadow of myself. So here I was, a fractured soul, educating the minds of children. Because through the children’s minds, I could learn the secrets that the town tried to hide. Still, being in one place so long forced me to connect with people on more than just a superficial level, and that was something I desperately wanted to avoid. I stepped to my desk, eager to push the past out of my mind and to focus on what I’d be teaching the fifteen eager bodies arriving in a couple hours.
I walked around the tables, pointing to incorrect capitalizations, commending pictures, and questioning punctuation choices. My comments were interrupted by the opening door, and a little girl holding tightly to her mother’s hand.
“Amy!” I greeted, hurrying over. “I thought you were sick!”
She was definitely not her normal bubbly self, with her head down and quiet demeanor. Her mother looked worse for wear, but spoke up on the child’s behalf. “Oh, just had that bug going around. She’ll be fine now. No sense wasting another day in bed…” She rattled on, but something wasn’t feeling right. I watched her eyes as she spoke. They darted around, meeting mine for a moment, and then off again, around the room. Before I could ask, though, she had hugged her daughter and scooted out the door. I kept an eye on Amy the rest of the day.
It was a Friday, so the kids were buzzing around, ready for the end of the day and coming weekend. I couldn’t blame them, for I, too, was anxious to go home and curl up in front of the fire with a good book. As the afternoon progressed, my concern for my tardy student grew. Amy had spent most of the day staring into space, ignoring any of her classmate’s attempts to try to engage her. Before the bell rang, I knelt by her desk.
“Amy, I’d like it if you would come to my house for lunch tomorrow. Would you like to do that?” She stared at me, slowly nodding. “Okay, I’ll see you around noon. Get some more rest. I’ve missed you.”
As I walked past the cemetery, a couple hours later, I found myself giving in to the urge I had fought hundreds of times in the past months. I wove my way between one old headstone after another – eyes expertly scanning the granite, searching for a date. I kept to the smaller stones, unattended and forgotten. And finally, there it was. Rachel Lynn Baker, June 2nd 1970- April 14th 1973. A few years younger than I was, but I could easily pull it off. Even as I thought about it, however, doubts filtered through my mind. It seemed too risky to pull an identity from a place I’d lived. Granted, even I had a hard time keeping track of all my residences – sixteen abodes in a dozen years does that to a person. But the Feds who’d placed me would know, and I didn’t want to take that chance if I ever did decide to run. Still, I decided to jot down the name and numbers in the notebook in my bag.
I continued my hike up the hill, drawing in the fiery orange and yellow tones scattered among dark green, houses belching out grey smoke that turned to mist, swathing the town in a ghostly blanket. It was beautiful. The top rail of a swing set appeared ahead, and soon the park was unveiled. A lonely form on the tire swing caught my eye, and I angled my steps in its direction. As I neared the child, I recognized him as one of last year’s students.
“Jake! How’ve you been?” I stretched a hand to his shoulder, taking in his threadbare coat. I reached down and touched one of his icy hands. “Are you waiting for your dad to get home? I live right down the block – why don’t you come over and warm up a bit?”
He stared up at me with those limpid brown eyes. “Yes, Ms. B.” He hopped off the swing, pulled a familiar backpack from beneath, and shyly placed his hand in mine. We walked back to my house in silence.
I opened the door and crossed to the stove. “We’ll have this place warmed up in no time,” I called over my shoulder, adroitly stacking slender strips of wood atop crumpled newspaper. Jake crept up beside me as I struck the match, and we watched as the flame engulfed the paper, flaring brightly, then settling into a blue and yellow glow as the sticks caught. I added a couple larger chunks of wood while Jake sat cross-legged and held his hands out, drinking in the warmth. I smiled at him, stood, and went into the kitchen to grab the kettle. “Want some cocoa?”
His eyes lit up, and he nodded. “Thanks, Ms. B.”
With the kettle on the rapidly warming woodstove, I filled two cups with the powder I kept on hand for my students. Within minutes, the kettle started steaming. I filled Jake’s cup, choosing to wait until it whistled to fill mine. Jake greedily slurped his cocoa, all the while staring at me. A strange feeling settled heavily in my midsection. I never had suspected the kids of anything more than the typical childhood misdemeanors, but something was definitely off here. “Are you okay?” I asked him, softly.
Jake’s little lip trembled, and he lowered his eyes. A bubble in the cocoa held his attention long enough that I wasn’t sure he was going to answer. Finally, he lifted his eyes once again. “I like you, Ms. B. You’re nice.” Eyes back on the bubble. “I don’t want you to die,” he whispered.
I was no stranger to fear, but its icy fingers down my spine was enough to make me realize I’d been apathetic to the danger I was in. I decided to play it off. “Silly,” I said, forcing a smile onto my lips, “I’m not going anywhere.”
My trepidation was enhanced by the tear that rolled down his pale cheek. “Yes, you are. You will be dead by Monday.”