illiam Parker's hands were covered in blood.
It will wash off,
he told himself, half asleep
He stared at his hands in the dim light and knew it wasn't true. This was the kind of blood that woke him up in the middle of the night, that pulled him out of bed soaked in sweat.
Parker had been raised on hunting. A deer shot on a cold November morning bled, but that blood washed off easily. The deer didn't deserve to die. It didn't have a name, but it did have a purpose. It provided food.
“Neither wound nor kill for no reason,” his father had said.
William Parker's father had been killed aboard Pan Am Flight 103. Taken by a terrorist's bomb. The men who'd killed him deserved to die. Their blood washed off.
His wife of only a few days had been killed when a maniac drove his car into a crowd. Another easy kill whose blood would wash off.
And there were so many others.... Like the ones who'd taken his father and wife. The men who believed the innocent should die for some strange, irrational reason. The monster that somewhere, in its past, crossed the line. The quiet student in the back who used a line out of a religious text to authorize the slaughter of hundreds. Thousands. The one who initiated a search on the Internet for fertilizer and bombmaking materials.
What is his name?
Parker looked at his hands again. The blood was gone. It was dawn.
Somewhere, not far away, lurked a monster that sought to bloody its own hands. For now, it remained nameless. It waited, lurking, seeking its fame. It rose from the same bottomless muck. It would do whatever it took to kill for no purpose.
His bedroom remained cold in the summer only by virtue of its dark shades and air-conditioning. By late afternoon, the heat would brew up black cells of storms painted red on the radar. The storm cells would churn up winds that could cut through neighborhoods like some horrific chainsaw.
Someone who will deserve to die is out there.
He sat up in bed. The house was silent.
A red cell like the ones on the weather map when a bad storm's coming.
He felt it.
William Parker didn't know where.
But it was coming.
chool starts in three weeks, Cathie thought. Just three weeks.
The new kindergarten teacher of the Mountain View Baptist Church had worried about the start of the full-time school schedule for some time.
Late July already?
Vacation Bible School was coming to an end next week. Then parents would get one last trip to the beach before the children returned to the full fall schedule.
It is important that they feel okay. They need to feel safe.
She had considered the matter for some time but particularly now as she stood at the entranceway waiting for the kids to arrive for Bible school.
My first year as a real teacher!
The building that housed the new elementary classrooms was barely a year old. The Mountain View Baptist Church named its school after the preacher who had formed the church only a decade earlier. The Reverend Patton School was the pride of the nearly thousand members who made up the church's congregation. Large panes of glass and wide-open hallways were bathed in bright light even on dark days. The small classrooms lined with unmarked desks still smelled of fresh paint. The walls of the corridors, especially near the entrance, were covered with the poster board colorings and drawings of the kindergarten students. The church and its main chapel were connected to the school by an open, covered walkway where, after the children reported to their classes, they would line up before marching into the main chapel for the beginning of the day. Each day started with a congregation of all of the students from the summer Bible school and a reading from Reverend Patton.
But for now, Cathie had the duty of meeting each of her pre-kindergarteners at the front as they unloaded from their parents' cars. She stood at the double glass doors that led into the school's main foyer. The Yukons and Ford trucks streamed through the covered access, lined up bumper-to-bumper, one by one, as if being cleared for a landing at O'Hare.
She didn't mind door duty. It was fun seeing the little ones, still half asleep, climb down from their trucks with their pink and red backpacks. They were so innocent. Cathie held the car door open with one hand while she helped a little girl slide down with her backpack rising up over her small shoulders. It surprised her that the load often weighed as much as the child.
She had the job of being the protector.
“Wow, that's a big one, little girl!” she smiled. Cathie was known for her infectious grin that filled up her round face and showed the slightest gap between her two front teeth. That gap had always made her shy and reluctant to smile until she got to know someone. Her dark brown hair was always perfect. The freckles confirmed the look of a girl raised in Mobile on salt water, more used to being on the bay in a skiff with her grandfather checking the crab traps, rather than wearing a dress and being a schoolteacher. And now she was responsible for the twenty-two pre-kindergarteners of Room B-1. In three weeks they would become her first kindergarten class.
“How are you feeling?” The child's mother leaned over the steering wheel, putting her cell phone down on the center panel for a moment.
No announcement had been made, but mothers could read her face. They instinctively knew. And Cathie was embarrassed as to what the mother's smile meant. She had only been married to the police officer for a year. Marriage and a child seemed to be a lot for one year.
“How's my little killer doing?” the mother changed the subject, asking about her own child.
She had a dry sense of humor that Cathie knew was warranted. The little girl was one of four and the only girl. The brothers bled more than the Red Cross when they messed with their sister. The child loved her pigtails and always wore a well-used and oversized Atlanta Braves baseball hat.
“Are you kidding? She loves B-1!” Cathie adjusted the backpack on the little girl's shoulders. “Your daughter is doing fine.” Even the parents needed to know their children were safe.
She had already learned, even as the newest kindergarten teacher at Mountain View, how important it was to reassure them all.
After the little girl pulled up the backpack, she bent over to tug on one of her boots that had started to slide off in the descent. Again, Cathie helped adjust the backpack. A summer rain had lasted for more than a day and carried with it a persistent and strong wind. Each of the children wore a different colored raincoat, which always amazed her. The coats were fire-engine reds and banana yellows and when bunched together at the end of the day getting ready for pickup, they filled the hallway in what looked like a gigantic bag of Skittles.
The next truck pulled in and another child hopped down, stopped, and tugged on her rubber boots.
“My, you look stunning!” the teacher said to her little charge.
Cathie patted the child on her head lightly, noticing in the flick of her eye that her wedding ring still sparkled even in the cloudy, dull light.
It's been a year!
She turned it lightly on her finger.
The Yukon pulled ahead, followed by a lifted Ford pickup. The trucks moved slowly as they passed through. It was not like when she was a child. Then the drivers were all mothers, favoring Toyota vans. Now the occasional father would drop off his child. The fathers drove big trucks, well off the ground, and were so careful in the line of traffic. They seemed to be aware that small things could get out of sight quickly.
Their trucks moved slowly as they passed through.
In the brief second between vehicles, she looked up to the line of trucks and Yukons that circled the parking lot.
Something caught her eye.
On the far end of the line of vehicles and the parking lot, near the highway and a row of trees, was the figure of a man standing next to a pine. He stood alone.
The pine trees had only been planted about a year ago, when the new school was completed. The church had started downtown as a dedicated group of followers of a Southern Baptist preacher who pulled his people together through hurricanes and layoffs at the shipyard. Cathie's father was one of the first to join. Back then, the congregants met at a school gym rented on Sundays. Now, the chapel was almost always packed.
It struck her as odd. He stood behind the small tree almost like a bad joke. She had heard of a father whose anger from a bad divorce caused him to show up every day until the police talked him into channeling his hate some other way, but this figure was different.
Something doesn't seem right,
she thought. She felt in her pocket the thin shape of a cell phone. Her husband had affixed a small cross to the cover. Cathie could always feel the shape with the tips of her fingers. She held it for a moment, hesitating. The next truck pulled up in front of the doors and as it did, the side mirror pulled just above her head. Again, she helped open the door, seeing two pairs of little hands push it from the inside.
She looked over the side of the truck as she opened the door. The man was missing.
The two girls who climbed out were twins who didn't seem to mind at all that their mother dressed them up in identical outfits and their father carried them to the church school every day in a truck loaded down in back with crab traps. Everyone on this side of the bay had salt water in their veins and crab traps in their trucks.
The vehicle carried with it the smell of the bay.
“Not the perfect day for a Monday,” the driver yelled the words over the rumble of his truck. “But summer's making the bend. Already the end of July.”
“Yes.” She paused. “But it will be a great week!” Her words always bubbled out. She waved at him as the two little girls passed under her arm, and she held open the glass door for them as they walked into the school. The wave was a brief flick of the hand, but it meant much more. It meant “your children are under our care now; I will protect them as if they were my own.”
The father waved back, with a cell phone in his hand, expecting to see them later that day when the same routine would occur in reverse.
But she stood on her tiptoes, unconsciously, as the Ford passed and cleared an empty space between vehicles.
The shape on the other side of the parking lot was still missing.
Another vehicle was in line with the next drop-off. In the brief space between the two, she scanned the edges of the parking lot. Nothing.
Worry comes often when there is a lack of information.
She stepped inside the door and yelled down the hallway to the old man who was the church school's entire security force.
He was at the far end of the hallway standing in a corner dressed in a starched, well-pressed white shirt with a security patch on his shoulder and blue well-creased cotton pants. The school had engaged in much debate after Sandy Hook about whether to arm him. In the end, the council reached the judgment that this was Mobile, Alabama, and risks such as what happened in Connecticut didn't exist here.
She knew his reputation. Pops was kind to the children but with a glance could stop a playground fight as soon as he arrived.
However, he was hard of hearing and often forgot his hearing aids. She heard the older students laugh at him as he passed them by in the lunchroom.
Yet Pops came with credentials. He had served in the Navy for twenty years and rumor had it that he served as a senior chief on a nuclear submarine. He would tell stories to the children, which the teacher would occasionally overhear, about living under the sea for months at a time.
But now he moved slowly and with a constant limp.
She hollered the word louder this time, causing the children coming into the school to stop and look back at her, as if Cathie's calls were directed to each of them.
“No, kids, go on in. Take your coats off and go to your rooms.” Her voice was tense. “I'm just looking for Pops!”
She smiled, unconsciously letting the glass door close on a child standing just outside. She quickly pulled the door open, looking beyond the child.
“I am sorry, Matthew, that was not very nice.” The boy was big for his age, as tall as the teacher, even though only in fifth grade. He would play football one day at Daphne High. The school, on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, was known for state championships and winners. And she would look up to him.
“Matthew, do me a favor and go get Mr. Ellison.” Pops's real name was Thomas Ellison.
He had speed. Matthew won every race on the playground.
Two more vehicles passed, both white Yukons. It was the popular color now.
The church was built around a pastor that had a strong following, but Mountain View was the church of working people. Most were well paid and drove the sixty miles to the lucrative jobs of the Pascagoula, Mississippi, shipyards.
“Where did he go?” She spoke the words to herself unconsciously, pulling the two glass doors together with a bang as if closing the castle gates.
She pulled out her cell phone and hit the direct dial for the first name on the list. It began to ring. Voicemail came on. She held her hand over the phone as she whispered a few words.
Two of her children heard the banging doors, saw her on the cell phone, and ran from the hallway towards her.
“Children, go back to your room.”
Their small faces showed fear.
Cathie waved her hand towards the two as she turned back to the parking lot. She continued to scan among the parked cars as she saw the last truck pull off, back onto the highway, its driver off to work. In the corner of her eye she saw the security guard scurrying towards her and felt the tug of a child's hand from behind.
And then she saw the figure moving towards her. It was how he moved that scared her. He came at her like a mad dog with his head down low but his eyes fixed.
“Oh, my God.”