I will lose my shit if I don’t get these sandals off in three seconds, Heather Brund thought to herself, on the edge of the meltdown abyss. The deceptive cuteness of new shoes had cost her four weeping blisters on her ankles and pinky toes. In fact, the entire trip provided enough fodder to write a book on Murphy’s Law.
She waited outside the near-full, yellow, school busses she’d reserved for the Lowry Park Zoo and Reptile Serpentarium field trip, clipboard in her patience-past-spent hand. The last parent chaperone and the remainder of her straggling fourth graders were walking toward her from across the parking lot, exhausted at the end of a scorching, long day.
C’mon, hurry up, dammit; get your lazy asses onto this sorry excuse for transportation.
Heather was desperate to drag her red sharpie across the last few students’ names on her list so she could finish her official accounting and get the fuck back home. She planned to spend the weekend recuperating, not only to de-stress, but also to nurse her sore double D’s with packages of frozen peas. Rookie mistake: she’d volunteered to supervise the back row of the bus, not anticipating how bumpy the ride would be.
Note to self: Wrong shoes. Wrong bra. Also, never again get duped into a planning or leadership role for any field trip so long as your career in education shall live.
A wad of Bubble Yum flew out one of the bus windows and lodged in her bangs.
Please, someone, just euthanize me, she begged to the void.
Being a first-year teacher, she hadn’t earned the right to appear frazzled. Heather felt the sting of constant evaluation by the administrators and scrutiny from colleagues and parents. Best keep a smile plastered on. She was in luck, though; masking contempt gets exponentially easier with time, or so a veteran teacher had told her after the first week of school.
I swore I saw him sauntering towards the bus just a minute ago, Heather thought, looking down at her list and seeing Isaac Scholeman’s name unchecked. He was the only student unaccounted for. Even though she had a tendency for over-dramatic pessimism, she reminded herself not to let on to anyone that there was a hiccup. Just a few more moments of Susie Sunshine while she sorted it out.
“One, two, three–eyes on me!” Heather recited in her best teacher voice on the first bus.
“Three, two, one–yes Ms. Brund,” a group of honors students chanted back on cue. The rest continued their typical squeals and blithering.
“Just need to know if Isaac Scholeman is on this bus.” Heather did the same check on the other three busses, too. No luck.
Oh god, that’s it. The kid’s lying dead in the gorilla enclosure. He’s either mauled to death by a silverback or shot by the stray bullet of a lazy-eyed zookeeper.
“Are we ready to head out yet?” one of the oldest teachers leaned out of a bus door and asked.
“Y–yep, just about,” Heather replied, pretending to be on her cell phone. “I was just told Isaac wasn’t feeling well. Stopped at the bathroom.” She lied well, considering the trainwreck she was on the inside.
She called the zoo’s guest relations number. Explained the situation. Gave a description of the boy. She would not let her voice break. Full-on Anne Frank mode; the world is a good place and everyone in it will bless this school field trip right here, right now.
Yes, this was really happening. A child going missing wasn’t just a distant anxiety anymore. Her nightmare had come to life, grown pointed wings, fangs. Hell–even tentacles probably. The works. It arrived via ferry on the River Styx up close and personal right to her port. It constricted her chest. Fuzzied her vision.
She reached in her mouth and pulled out a coin for the toll to oblivion.
No–wait. Those little gremlins! The kids must’ve been playing a prank on poor Ms. Brund. She recruited the help of a half dozen most-trusted students, the competent ones that would one day buy and sell her, maybe even found their own school that would’ve never let this happen. Her instructions were to search the busses for Isaac but to act instead as if a cell phone went missing; everyone would sit patient for that, as twisted as that was.
Heather paced the parking lot. Principal Sandoval appeared in front of her, clad in a blood bespeckled lab coat and black, rubber, mad-scientist gloves, the ones that go up to your elbows so you can dip your arms in acid without your flesh dissolving to the bone. Sandoval handed her the decapitated career of Ms. Brund on a platter.
Prank? Who am I kidding? Isaac has been abducted and is lying naked and raped in the Tarantula Terrarium.
Write my eulogy. My parents hate me, I have no friends and no warmth in my pathetic existence. I don’t even have the decency to admit the problem to my colleagues nor search for a child myself. I’m a failure.
A thunderous din of laughter and mockery, the likes of a thousand Tim Curry’s possessed by demons, came to Heather’s ears.
She then sighted Isaac Scholeman, as a parched Rub’ al Khali Desert traveler would spot a miraged oasis, at the far end of the parking lot.
When it was clear it was Isaac, Heather felt a mixture of, thank god he’s okay and you motherfucker how could you do that to me?
Thanks bunches Isaac. Isaac the killer of reputations. Isaac the life-ruiner. Isaac the selfish prick.
“Isaac, what happened, honey?” Heather asked, mustering whatever gentle tone she had left.
The boy said nothing.
“I just want to make sure everything is okay.”
Still no reply.
“I’m going to need an explanation from you,” Heather continued, taking back the reins of authority and thoroughness, albeit with some paranoia. “Did a stranger talk to you…bother you…give you anything to eat or drink?”
Isaac looked at the ground. Ms. Brund knelt down to him.
“If you don’t tell me, maybe you’ll tell Counselor Harris or maybe a doctor at the hospital.”
“No. Please, not that. Just please don’t tell anyone,” Isaac said, breaking his silence. “It’s just that, I collect the notes she leaves in my lunch. My mom. I haven’t missed one before, so I went back to find the picnic place where I accidentally threw it away with my lunch bag.” He handed the wrinkled paper to the teacher.
The note had elegant handwriting, peppered with smileys, hearts, and x’s and o’s. His mother had written something along the lines of: ‘Dear Izzy–You never know, today could be the day you strike up a conversation with someone and finally make a nice friend. That’d never happen if you stayed home. I’m proud of you for going on the trip. We’ll read the next chapter in Chamber of Secrets tonight. Love, Mommy.’
Heather handed Isaac the note back, discreetly.
She later told the most convincing lie she could, to anyone who asked, about Isaac Scholeman getting sick from a corn dog and holding up the busses. The two both kept the secret well, as promised.