The line was silent for a few seconds. Mirielle MacKenzie is at Daniel’s house, Phillip thought. This is either fantastic news, or it’s horrible. There was no possible middle ground here, he thought; the police already think that Chloe had something to do with her disappearance, and now it turns out one of her employees, in fact, does. There’s no talking our way out of this, unless…
“Mirielle,” Chloe said, her voice no more strained than it had been moments before. “Are you safe?”
“Yes,” Mirielle replied. “Daniel has been taking very good care of Rob and me.”
“Rob is with you?” Phillip asked.
“Of course, but he’s asleep right now,” Mirielle responded. “The past couple of days have been rough on him.”
“I understand,” Chloe said. “Is Daniel out, or…?”
“No, he’s just… occupied,” Mirielle said. “In the bathroom. Sorry, old habits die hard.”
“Old habits?” Phillip said.
“It’s a long story, but I suppose you should know,” Mirielle said. “Alex didn’t usually let me answer the phone when he was home. When I did answer, I was always supposed to say that he was occupied, or unavailable, or something like that.”
“Was?” Chloe asked. “Are we to understand you’ve left Alex?”
“Yeah,” Mirielle said. “It… I mean…”
A click was audible on the line. “Phillip, Miss Reed,” Daniel said. “I apologize for the circumstances of this revelation, but I was left with no choice.”
“Why don’t we take this from the top, then,” Phillip said. “Why are Rob and Mirielle with you?”
“I asked him,” Mirielle said. “I knew I had to get away from Alex, but I had nowhere to go. My sister lives in Houston, you see, and I couldn’t possibly afford the ticket there.”
Chloe smiled bitterly. “It is all right,” she said. “Please, continue.”
“There’s not much else to tell,” Mirielle said. “When Daniel came to me…”
“This has been some time in the making, Miss Reed,” Daniel said. “It was an independent project that I was pursuing.”
“How exactly did you come to understand the situation?” Chloe asked.
“It was, to be frank, obvious from the moment that I laid eyes on Alex and Mirielle,” Daniel said. “Without intervention, I was certain that the situation would not improve, and would in fact deteriorate to a fatal and messy end.”
“Daniel saw what was going on, even before I could tell him,” Mirielle added.
“Mister Brookfield,” Daniel said. “Immediately before my departure, you mentioned that you believed Alex to be unnaturally fixated on the intelligence differential between himself and Rob. This was remarkably astute observation work on your part, and you are to be commended. Alex is intensely jealous of the progress young Rob is making.”
Phillip shrugged off the compliment; now is not the time, he thought, wondering if Daniel might be able to hear that through the phone lines. “Go on.”
“When Rob brought home the letter regarding the fund-raiser for the school trip, the balance amount surprised Alex into action,” Daniel said.
“It was too low to make up,” Chloe said.
“Quite the opposite, Miss Reed,” Daniel said. “Rob was well within reach of having enough to attend the trip. Even a token effort during the current fund-raiser would be sufficient. Rob was, however, motivated by the prizes offered, as well as the competition within the class.”
“Wait,” Phillip said. “Alex was freaked out because his son could easily go on the trip?”
“Precisely,” Daniel said. “It was a victory for Rob. Under the system of discipline that Alex uses to rear his child, that was completely unacceptable.”
“That makes no sense,” Chloe said. “He didn’t want his son to succeed even in that?”
“Of course not,” Mirielle laughed bitterly. “It would make Rob happy, so of course it couldn’t happen.”
“I’m starting to like Alex more and more,” Phillip growled. “The same way a boxer likes his opponents to have glass jaws.”
“A colorful metaphor,” Daniel said. Phillip could hear the disdain in his voice even through the low-fidelity phone line. “To continue, this was merely the latest in a long-running streak of injustices being perpetrated upon Rob. Alex had been doctoring the schoolwork Rob did under the guise of assisting him with it.”
“I didn’t get it at first,” Mirielle said, “until Rob’s grades started getting worse in third grade after Alex started ‘helping’ him nightly.”
“Mrs. MacKenzie,” Chloe asked, “please forgive me for asking this, but Alex is not by any chance your second husband?”
“No,” Mirielle said. “He’s not the wicked stepdad, though if he was I could probably sleep better. No, Rob is definitely Alex’s son.”
“Why didn’t you tell Alex to back off?” Phillip asked. “You obviously saw that he wasn’t helping. He’s your husband. Couldn’t you talk to him?”
“I think perhaps Alex was working from a woefully inaccurate definition of ‘marriage’,” Daniel said, “as demonstrated by his behavior. To defy him was to defy the Almighty.”
“Alex…” Mirielle began, but trailed off. “He’s not the kind of person you say no to, for one reason or another.”
“One reason being that he can be quite persuasive and charming, when he is not angered,” Daniel said, “and the other being that when he is angered, saying no to him would be something you would quickly wish you had not done, and would therefore not soon do again.”
“He was hurting you?” Chloe asked.
“Only once in a while,” Mirielle said. “It wasn’t like those people on TV, where they come home and get beat up every night. Alex didn’t hit us unless he thought it was really bad.”
“But he did hit you,” Phillip said. “That bastard just hit the top of my scumbag list.”
“Mirielle,” Chloe said, “that’s still wrong. He was abusing you, controlling you.”
“One could even use the word ‘dominating’, with little chance of being accused of hyperbole,” Daniel said. “Bit by bit, Alex made every effort to metamorphose the sense of self-worth Mirielle possessed into a sense of dependence upon Alex. He reduced her self-confidence, made her feel incapable and incompetent. To his eyes, the marriage license was little but the title to her body and soul.”
“It was terrible,” Mirielle said. “But Daniel started calling me, starting showing me a way out.”
“When was this?” Chloe asked.
“As I stated, from the moment I laid eyes upon the MacKenzies,” Daniel said. “I have been working behind the scenes since the first contact with Rob.”
“And you didn’t think it was necessary to tell us?” Phillip said.
“Your participation could have jeopardized my maneuvering,” Daniel said. “As it turns out, your participation was the only thing that I was able to accurately predict. The vast majority of my private time over the last three weeks has been in adjusting the plan to account for unforeseen behavioral variances.”
“If we knew we were part of the plan, we would have acted with the plan,” Chloe said.
“I disagree,” Daniel said. “Knowing you were part of a greater gambit would have altered your behavior to too significant of a degree. It is the same principle which we employ during the testing of our prospective students.”
“Dammit, Daniel, you used us,” Phillip said. “You’re just as bad as Alex.”
“On the contrary, Phillip,” Daniel said. “We are still working together, and we are both accomplishing our goals. In all honesty, if my actions constitute using you, then your actions also constitute using me.”
“But we pay you to use you!” Phillip said.
“Phillip,” Chloe said, “Daniel was merely in the right place at the right time. I don’t blame him for this, and I don’t think he’s working with malicious intent.”
“Intent?” Phillip asked. “He’s been going behind our backs for… what, a month? Month and a half?”
“You think that’s bad, try doing it for six years,” Mirielle said.
“Phillip,” Chloe said. “You just got done telling me that it’s intent that matters, didn’t you?”
“I assure you,” Daniel said, “my intentions are merely to see Mirielle and Rob liberated from their predicament. I do respect your opinion, however. Shall we set aside the recriminations for the time being?”
Phillip stewed for a moment. “Fine.”
“I believe you called for a purpose,” Daniel said. “What has transpired, Chloe?”
“Well, that’s not nearly as important anymore,” she replied sheepishly. “Listen. The police are looking for Mirielle and Rob, and they’ve been poking around the Foundation today.”
“The police?” Mirielle asked. “Why?”
“Alex put out a Missing Persons report on you both,” Phillip said. “I think there’s something to that.”
“Nothing benevolent, that is certain,” Daniel muttered. “What have you told the police?”
“Nothing,” Chloe said. “We didn’t know anything about it at the time.”
“Very well,” Daniel said. “If Alex issued the report, and you were questioned today, that is commensurate with the timeline of events.”
“How long have you been with Daniel?” Chloe asked.
“Since Sunday morning,” Mirielle said. “Daniel picked us both up while Alex was still asleep.”
“We should call that cop, what was his name? Sabretti,” Phillip said.
“Absolutely not!” Daniel said. “You must have no further contact with the police!”
“Give me one good God damned reason why not,” Phillip hissed.
“The police only have Alex’s side of the story,” Chloe said, her eyes lighting up with understanding. “If we say we know where they are, it matches up with his story, and we all go down in flames.”
“To say nothing of the considerably greater risk that Mirielle and Rob would be exposing themselves to,” Daniel said. “This is quite troubling.”
“No kidding,” Phillip said. “Look, just tell me this. How is Rob? The kids are really worried about him.”
Mirielle’s voice picked up. “He’s doing fine,” she said. “We’ve been keeping him home so that he doesn’t get spotted, but Daniel was thinking of escorting him to and from school until this gets fixed.”
“Indeed, this may be an ideal opportunity,” Daniel said. “The children are asking about Rob, you say?”
“That’s right,” Phillip said. “Today was an election or something, and they were counting on Rob’s vote against Deacon Flay.”
“I see,” Daniel said. “Very well. Please tell the children that Rob will be in class tomorrow. I will escort him personally to the gate.”
The voting period was short, only about three minutes or so. However, it felt like an eternity for Jeanne. The four Antarcticans present all stared at each other once their ballots were filled out, and Jeanne thought back to Mrs. Baum’s class. Monsters and abysses, Deacon and Rob, the election and the Foundation… all of this swirled in her head. The tension was starting to become untenable; she wished she could reach her hand across the desk and take Tegan or Nick’s, to start the synchronization that they relied on at lunch. It would be too obvious here, though.
“All right, we’re going to do this by continent,” Mr. Walsh said. “West to east, north first. Put your ballot in this box,” he said, indicating the receptacle on his desk, “and take one of these quiz sheets. North America, come on down.”
Antarctica, according to the reckoning used in Mr. Walsh’s class, was situated between the Americas and Europe; as such, they were the third group to cast their votes. Jeanne glanced at Mr. Walsh as she put her ballot into the box. The grin on his face seemed to be genuine joy, but he also seemed to eye each student carefully as he or she passed. Jeanne picked up the quiz and returned to her desk.
Deacon passed the Antarctic cluster as he approached Mr. Walsh’s desk. Nick covered his paper and Tegan leaned forward, both blocking his view of their answers. Jeanne glanced up just in time to see Nick’s chair jerk backwards; Deacon put his hands up. It was obvious to the students that Deacon had kicked the chair, but Mr. Walsh was strict about not speaking during quizzes.
As expected, though, the Antarcticans were first done with the busywork. Jeanne turned her attention from the facile questions to watch Mr. Walsh count out the votes; she had to admit that she felt he was one of the more organized teachers this year, but he still was just a teacher. He was still just as blind to the realities around him, such as Deacon’s reign of terror. Not for long, she thought, smiling imperceptibly.
Mr. Walsh had been dividing the votes into three piles on his desk. Jeanne could see the piles clearly from her desk. One pile was significantly larger than the other two, but that was to be expected; someone had to win, after all.
He paused in his sorting, bringing the ballot in his hand to his face for a closer look. Bingo, she thought; that’s one of ours. He set it aside, creating a new pile of sorts. This process repeated four more times, creating five piles when all was said and done.
Wait, she thought. Five? She had no time to study Mr. Walsh closer. He lifted his head to stare out at the class, most still scribbling on their pages. Not wanting to call attention to being done early, Jeanne quickly lowered her head back to the finished quiz, hoping to look deep in concentration on the mysteries of the Electoral College.
“Everyone still working? I think I can leave you guys for a second,” Mr. Walsh said. “One last thing I forgot to mention. In an election, the results need to be certified by a judge. Since we don’t have a judge handy, though,” he grinned, “I’ll just take these out to Mr. Lorentz, and have him do it. Won’t be but a minute.” He picked up the piles and walked to the door; all of the students’ eyes followed him. Only four students saw the look of worry on his face as the door closed behind him.
“We’re busted,” Nick murmured.
“Or Deacon is,” Jeanne hissed. There was already a low din of discussion in the room. “It might have worked.”
“I don’t think so,” Tegan whispered. “The teachers always…”
“Sssssh!” Fran said, her voice the loudest of the room. “He’ll get us for cheating!” And with that, the room fell into silence.
Jeanne’s eyes swept across the room; some students were still working, but most were glaring at Fran for being bossy. Gene was rolling his eyes. Fran had a point, of course; there was a precedent for Mr. Walsh throwing out the results of a quiz and replacing it with one ten times harder. The difficulty jump was only of marginal discomfort to Jeanne and Gene, but the wasted effort got under her skin.
It did not take long for Mr. Walsh to return; the classroom was remarkably silent when he arrived. “Okay, boys and girls, time’s up,” he said. “I’ve got the election results, all official and certified. Everyone, pass your quiz to your nearest candidate– that’s Gene, Fran, or Deacon– and then let’s have those three come up to the board.”
Gene collected the quizzes from the Antarcticans and a handful of other students, and warily stepped forward. Fran was unusually somber, and Deacon was grinning. Jeanne felt that there was something about to go horribly wrong, but she couldn’t place what, exactly.
“Okay,” Mr. Walsh said. “We had three ideas. Gene wanted us to watch a movie, Deacon wanted to go out and play tag, and Fran wanted to go to the computer lab. All are really great ideas, but only one will win. And the winner is…”
Jeanne held her breath. Please not Deacon, she thought. Please not Deacon. Please not Deacon…
“Deacon Flay,” Mr. Walsh said. “Twelve votes, to Gene and Fran’s eleven each. It’s really awesome that we were split so closely.”
The class clapped politely, but Jeanne made only a token effort even at that. She glanced up at Gene, who was crestfallen but dealing with it. Fran was devastated; she had believed that she had an advantage, obviously. But Deacon wasn’t grinning in his usual default gloating anti-smile. That’s probably scarier than if he was happy, she thought.
“Deacon, would you like to say anything to the class?” Mr. Walsh said.
“Yeah, thanks,” Deacon mumbled. “I knew I was gonna win, but, well, this was really close.”
“Indeed,” Mr. Walsh said, smiling. “You’re our President of the world, now, and that means you’re going to be in the presence of power from here on out. All right, we’ll be playing tag tomorrow,” he added, “so make sure you all dress warmly for it. Now, about this quiz…”
And class went on as normally, if somewhat truncated. Jeanne couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something she was expecting to happen, but it wasn’t going to; the same disappointment was on the face of most of the rest of the class, even Deacon. She was especially unnerved at that, but again, couldn’t figure out why. The letdown shifted gradually to frustration, and by the time the bell rang, releasing the class, she was in full-blown irritability.
Lunch wasn’t any worse than usual, with the caveat that Gene and Jeanne were on their own at their table again. They didn’t take Tegan up on her offer to sit with her group, nor were they expecting Nick to break from his group; Jeanne was in no mood to suffer any of her fellow students’ foolishness with anything resembling grace. Recess could not come soon enough for them.
Tegan and Nick found their way over to them about halfway through the playground period, and the mood did not improve any. “Sorry you lost,” Nick offered lamely.
“I don’t care about the election,” Gene snapped. “I care about what happened with our note.”
“Maybe Mr. Walsh ignored it,” Jeanne sighed.
“I don’t think so,” Tegan said. “All this time Mr. Walsh never said anything about certifying the votes. He could have been making that up.”
“He’s not,” Nick said. “I heard it on TV. They were saying they have to certify elections harder these days because of stuff that happened before we were born.”
“Well, yeah, he wouldn’t make that part up,” Tegan said, rolling her eyes, “but why does our election need to be certified?”
“It’s funny,” Jeanne said, “but it’s probably nothing. He probably just went to see about getting the gym for tomorrow, huh?”
“Yeah,” Gene said. “I really thought this was going to work.”
“He wasn’t gone long, though,” Tegan said. “If he did need to talk to Mr. Lorentz about the gym, you’d think it would have taken longer.”
“Huh,” Nick said. “Then he probably didn’t talk to Mr. Lorentz. I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t think anyone can stop Deacon. We sure can’t.” Nick walked away, scoffing under his breath.
“Sure we can,” Tegan said, but Jeanne knew she was lying; she was pretty sure Gene knew it, too. “It’s just… we need to try again, when we get a chance next time.” She, too, walked away.
Gene turned to his sister, who was facing him. “Something went way wrong in there, and Deacon knows it,” he said, flatly.
“Who said we weren’t supposed to peek?” Jeanne said, scowling.
“You know we can if it’s really important,” Gene said. “I think our note did work. Just not exactly how we hoped…”
The kids were cooperative the next morning; Phillip hadn’t filled them in on everything that was going on, but he had relayed Daniel’s message. It met with great excitement at the time, though he would have thought himself a fool if he believed they weren’t aware of something else going on under the surface. The night had passed without incident, and when they left for school, Phillip was out of the house shortly thereafter, hoping to catch an early bus to get to the Old Fortress.
Chloe met him in the building’s lobby, with a full drinks carrier in her hands; he took the coffees from her, and she opened the elevator gate. “I couldn’t figure out how to get in,” she said, smiling sheepishly. She appeared, to him, to be far overdressed, wearing an attractive business skirt-suit.
“Fetching coffee? Isn’t this kind of thing beneath you?” he smirked.
“It’s nothing,” she said. “Besides, if there was ever a day for a celebration, today is it.”
“Chloe, there’s something I should tell you,” Phillip said. “It’s about the interview with the MacKenzies last week.”
Chloe’s demeanor changed in an instant. “I see. Go on.”
“I had Ben do more digging into the reason for the failure,” Phillip said, “and he found a small device designed to shut off and restart the camera’s receivers. It was set up to be activated by remote, and generic enough that it was more or less untraceable.”
“All right,” Chloe said. “But only a few people would have reason to sabotage the interview recording.”
“No, only one person would,” Phillip said. “Daniel.”
“You’re not seriously accusing him of cutting off the signal, are you?”
“I am,” Phillip said. “He has access to the electrical closet for the interview room. He had a secret to keep involving the MacKenzies. And, most importantly, he had a reason to keep that secret from us.”
“You’re saying that it was part of his rescue scheme?” Chloe asked. “Why? What would he say to Mirielle there, in front of Alex?”
“I don’t think he was saying anything to Mirielle,” Phillip said. “I think, and this is where I’m really not certain, he was threatening Alex.”
“You have no proof.”
“No, I don’t,” Phillip admitted, “and that’s why I’m worried. But think about it,” he said. “Alex goes totally ballistic after Daniel says… something to him. It’s not a long leap to think that he pissed Alex off.”
“And having that on tape would make the Foundation look even more guilty,” Chloe said. “No wonder he needed to keep us in the dark.”
“I don’t know,” Phillip said, “but I’m starting to have serious doubts about where Daniel’s loyalty lies.”
Chloe stopped to consider this for a moment. “A week ago, I would have thought you insane for making such a suggestion.”
“I don’t know, Phillip,” she sighed. “I’ve known Daniel for years. I can’t think that he would betray us. I can’t even guess who he’d betray us to.”
“He’s not betraying us, he’s just hurling us under the bus as a distraction for Mirielle and Rob,” Phillip said. “I want to help them, but I don’t want it to cost the Foundation.”
The elevator reached the seventh floor, and Chloe pulled the gate open. “I think we should discuss this later,” she said. “Daniel and Mirielle are already here.”
“I thought I was early enough,” Phillip said.
“They got in before I did,” she said. “Let’s just give them the benefit of the doubt for now. If Daniel is working at cross purposes, we can confront him about it after we’ve taken care of Mirielle and Rob.”
“You still want to focus on rescuing them more than rescuing ourselves?” Phillip asked.
“The way I see it,” she said, “there’s no difference between the two now. We can’t possibly fail if that’s the case.”
Phillip’s protest was squelched as Chloe opened the door to the Foundation’s office space, where Daniel and Katherine were staring each other down. “I must continue to object to this, Doctor,” Daniel said, his voice raised as far as Phillip had ever heard it– which wasn’t saying much, he groused silently. “Mirielle MacKenzie is not one of our students. I fail to understand why–”
“You’re damn right, you fail to understand,” Katherine shot back. “We need to make sure what Alex did doesn’t carry over–”
“Both of you stop this now!” Chloe said. Daniel and Katherine swiveled to face her, not having expected her arrival. “I want you to explain to me what this is about. Daniel, go first.”
“Certainly, Miss Reed,” Daniel said. “Katherine has requested permission to perform an evaluation on Mirielle.”
“On what grounds?” Phillip asked.
“We’ve established that Alex MacKenzie has exerted undue control over Rob and Mirielle,” Katherine said. “I want to make sure that, first, she hasn’t become too hopelessly indoctrinated so that she’ll continue the abuse once she’s free, and second, that we’re not exploiting her lack of will in order to get Rob into our hands.”
“Both are good reasons,” Daniel said, “but unfortunately irrelevant. The Foundation will be under scrutiny of wrongdoing regardless of our precautions, and furthermore, how Rob is disciplined outside of Twilight Wings is not our concern.”
“I disagree,” Chloe said. “I’ve been thinking this over, and now that we have the chance to do a great good, we can’t let it go wrong at all. Katherine, please perform a short, psych-only evaluation.”
“Miss Reed, I–” Daniel began.
“Daniel, I understand where you’re coming from,” she continued. “We are too deeply embroiled in this now.”
“A failing on my part and mine alone,” Daniel said.
“No,” Chloe said. “I was considering bringing the Foundation into the hunt for the MacKenzies sooner or later. Phillip can attest to that.”
“Is this true, Mister Brookfield?” Daniel said. Phillip merely nodded. “I see,” he continued. “Perhaps I was too dismissive of you both.”
“What’s done is done,” Chloe said. “We’re in this situation now. We have no time for recriminations, and blame will solve nothing. Katherine, conduct the evaluation, and we will discuss this situation with Mrs. MacKenzie once you are ready.”
Katherine nodded. “Two hours,” she said. “Shouldn’t be longer than that.” She walked away, moving towards her offices and the evaluation rooms.
Phillip turned to Daniel. “Rob did get to school all right, didn’t he?”
“As I said, Mister Brookfield,” Daniel scoffed, “I escorted Rob directly to the school gate personally. We arrived ten minutes early.”
“Good enough for me,” Phillip said. “The kids were thrilled to hear he was all right.”
“I wonder how the school will react once Rob returns,” Chloe asked. “I believe the police would have a presence there looking for him, or at the very least would have informed the faculty.”
Daniel blanched. “The… police?”
“Come on, Daniel,” Phillip said. “You had to have seen this coming. It’s in, like, every movie about kidnappings. The first thing the cops do is check with the schools.”
“I was aware that there would be police near the school,” Daniel said, “but within the school, I was under the impression that police presence was expressly forbidden. This complicates things.”
“Daniel,” Chloe said, “what instructions did you give Rob in the even that he was located by the police?”
“I gave him none,” Daniel said. “He was to simply cooperate and tell the truth. Mirielle did ask him to request that he not be returned to his father, however.”
“That’s pretty weak,” Phillip said.
“Discovery by the police was dismissed as an impossibility,” Daniel said. “I had no reason to believe that Rob would be in danger of recapture.”
“The one thing you didn’t plan for,” Chloe said. “Well, it can still work to our advantage. We just have to make sure that the police are understanding once we explain the situation.”
“More than that,” Phillip said, “we have to make sure we get everything we can out of Mirielle before the cops come for her.”
“I think that could be phrased a bit better,” Daniel said, scowling.
“What I mean is,” Phillip said, “we need to get the full story out of Mirielle, and on tape. Once the police reunite her with Alex, she’ll be under his spell once more, and she’ll cave.”
“Do you think that’s a possibility?” Chloe said.
“It’s a certainty,” he nodded. “We have the tape of the second interview. Just his presence terrified her. I’ll go talk to Ben and see about setting up the recording equipment once more. We’ve only got one shot at this.”
“I shall determine whether or not we can present the consent forms for the participation of her son in Twilight Wings,” Daniel said. “I suspect that we cannot, but…”
“A bit opportunistic, don’t you think?” Chloe said, cocking an eyebrow. “Can’t this wait?”
“I believe that time is of the essence,” Daniel said. “Though I am not unsympathetic to her plight, Phillip is correct in that we have only one final chance. It is now or never.”
“Then I’d better boogie,” Phillip said. He realized he was still carrying the drinks tray, and handed it to Daniel, before turning away.
“Phillip!” Chloe said. “Your coffee. It’s, uh, this one.” She handed him one of the cups from the carrier; he grinned, and nodded once before taking it.
Ben was barely set up in his office when Phillip came in. He listened as the situation was explained, nodding and giving input, before interrupting. “Phillip,” he said, “I know who set up the switch-presser.” He told him.
Phillip scowled. He hadn’t failed to plan for this, he was expecting it. Things weren’t out of control. This was going exactly according to plan. And, he thought, that was the worst thing that could possibly happen.
Jeanne and Gene weren’t surprised that Rob hadn’t been standing around outside at the school gate; the risk of being discovered by Deacon was too great. Tegan and Nick smiled as they passed by; the day was going good so far.
The secret burned inside her. She was wondering why Phillip had been so forthcoming with information about the whole situation. On the one hand, it was important for her to know why Rob had been missing, and where Rob had been– Daniel looked and acted scary at times, but she knew there was no safer place in the entire world than being near him (except maybe their barricaded room in the Old Fortress). But then again, Phillip knew how much of a blabbermouth she could be. Even she wouldn’t have trusted herself with the news. If he had told her, knowing she would spill the secret, then keeping her mouth shut was running counter to what he expected and, as far as she knew, wanted her to do.
As the morning wore on, however, catching up would have to wait. Mrs. Baum was upset over something, and that meant that the class was tasked with the dreaded silent reading. The slightest word was met with severe penalties, and while the assigned passages were of mild interest, Jeanne and Gene were through them in a fraction of the allotted time. Idly, she flipped through the rest of the textbook, hoping to find something of even marginally more interesting than what the class was supposed to be reading.
In between faking being enraptured by the pathetically easy book, Jeanne stole glances at Mrs. Baum’s desk to try to ascertain what had set her off. To the best of her knowledge, the recent tests that the class had taken returned universally acceptable results. This comforted her to a certain amount, in that she couldn’t be expected to feel responsible for it. Mrs. Baum was temperamental, and at times when the class did poorly– or even just a few students underperformed– she would take the entire class to task for not assisting each other.
On the surface, Jeanne liked the idea. Working together was one of her favorite ways to get things done; she was fine enough on her own, but sharing the effort made more sense than struggling alone. Gene shared this social proclivity. Some teachers got it, as far as Jeanne was concerned, some didn’t, and then there were the ones like Mrs. Baum, who kept sending mixed signals. No talking, but help each other! No passing notes, but you need to communicate! No sharing answers, but you have to work together! It drove Jeanne crazy at times.
Today, though, it was clear that the class was not responsible for the fit of pique. Jeanne felt a wave of relief every time she caught Mrs. Baum staring meaningfully at the phone. So she’s expecting a call, she thought. As long as the class kept quiet and didn’t cause problems, the chances of Mrs. Baum blowing up were minimal. This could be just random, she thought; she didn’t dare concentrate enough on her teacher long enough to get more than the sense that it wasn’t anything she could control.
About halfway through the interminable class period, the silence was shattered by the telephone’s shrill ringing; several students jolted to attention in response, some having nearly fallen asleep. A short amount of laughter, pardoned silently by Mrs. Baum, followed as she answered it. “Yes? Yes, he’s here. I will. Him, too? All right. They’ll be right down.” She hung up, stepped over to Gene’s desk, across the room from Jeanne’s, and whispered something in his ear.
Gene nodded once, stood, and left the classroom without a word– or, Jeanne noted, his backpack. It was remarkable that he would leave his stuff behind, she thought; whatever it was, it must have scared him, or been really important. Her eyes traced Mrs. Baum as she moved to the next boy who would be ‘right down’.
To her surprise, she stopped at Deacon Flay’s desk. Again, she spoke into the boy’s ear. Deacon looked at her. “Me? Why?” he asked.
“Do not test me, Mister Flay,” Mrs. Baum said, her voice iron. “Go now.”
This was unprecedented, Jeanne thought. Not that Mrs. Baum was irritated, but that she was irritated at Deacon. Jeanne tried not to stare as Deacon stood and walked towards the door; she was so focused on him, however, that she didn’t notice that everyone else was also watching his walk of shame.
“Does anyone else have any more disrespect for authority?” Mrs. Baum said, surveying the class. Every student suddenly became acutely interested in their books; Jeanne was similarly inspired to re-read the insipid passage she had open on her desk, squelching her desire to give the teacher a sincere, true, and foolishly honest response. “Good,” she said, “keep reading. Not one word.”
And class was silent for the remainder of the period. About five minutes before the bell was scheduled to ring, another call came in, with a similar amount of disruption on the part of the students, but no laughter was heard. Mrs. Baum gave a few curt responses to the person on the other end of the line, and when the call was over, she again stood up.
“Class,” she said. Jeanne couldn’t identify the new timbre in her voice– she was still upset, but there was something else to it now. “Gather your things at once and line up at the front of the room. Miss LaFayette, please also get your brother’s kit. Mister Maya, you will get Mister Flay’s bag.” As she spoke, the students slowly collected their school gear, a low murmur coming over them. “No speaking, please. All will be explained.”
Once the class was lined up, Mrs. Baum marched them down the hallway. As the procession passed Mr. Lorentz’s office, Jeanne glanced in; Deacon was sitting there, his head hung in despair. There’s a first time for everything, she thought, putting it out of her mind.
The class arrived at the auditorium, and Mrs. Baum seated the children in the front rows of the center section. The stage was set for a musical that the high schoolers were preparing, although none of the actors were present; painted plywood trees and houses dotted the rear of the stage. Mr. Walsh was seated on the edge of the stage, frowning. Maybe the game of tag is off, Jeanne thought, hopefully.
The students had shuffled enough as they entered the auditorium that Jeanne was now sitting between Tegan and Nick, in the second row. “What do you think this is about?” Nick asked.
“I don’t know,” Jeanne said, half believing it.
“You always know,” Tegan said. “It’s kinda spooky.”
“Yeah, well, this time I don’t know,” Jeanne snapped.
Nick leaned in, his voice lowering. “I saw Deacon in the principal’s office. I wonder if Gene got yelled at.”
“I don’t think he did,” Tegan said. “I didn’t see him there.”
“Mrs. Baum said ‘him too’, so they had to go to the same place,” Jeanne said.
“Yeah, see? You always know,” Nick said, grinning.
“I’m just guessing, now,” Jeanne said, rolling her eyes.
Nick sighed. “I wish Rob was here today. He’d know what this was about.”