SHE WAS IN the hallway, headed directly toward room 218—Mary Boyle’s Earth Science—when Chad Cooper came out of the men’s room and stood directly in front of her.
“I want to apologize,” he said.
Her body was shaking, blood was pounding away in her ears, that for an instant she didn’t hear him—didn’t even see him standing there—and automatically went to step around him.
He moved to the side so he was standing in her way again.
“Sarah, please. I acted like an asshole back there, and I wanted to—”
“I have to go.”
“Chad”—speaking between clenched teeth—“get out of my way.”
She pushed him, much harder than she intended, catching him by surprise and knocking him off balance. He stumbled backward, tripping over his own feet and falling to the floor.
“What the fuck?” he said loudly, then quickly shut his eyes and raised his shoulders, hoping no student (or administrator) was nearby.
She was already walking past him, ignoring him as he called her name, asking what was wrong, what her problem was, then, under his breath, calling her what sounded like crazy bitch.
That last bit almost stopped her, her body shaking even more, the blood so loud in her ears she could hardly hear her own thoughts. The idea of turning around, stomping back toward Chad, slapping him across the face appealed to her in a way she knew was wrong. She even paused for an instant, considering it, then continued forward, passing different Art projects taped to the walls, one of them having pulled away from the wall and hanging limp, like it would fall down at any moment.
She hurried around the corner, came to the room, tried the door but it was locked just as she knew it would be. Fumbling then in her pocket, bringing out the keys, she thought briefly of Eileen, thinking that she wasn’t a complete non-faculty because at least she had a room key. As she opened the door she could hear her cell phone vibrating in her bag located beneath the shelf behind the teacher’s desk.
A minute, that terrible voice had told her, she had one minute to answer her cell phone, and as she sprinted past the desks to the front of the room, tore open her canvas bag, she knew that Chad Cooper had caused her to miss her deadline, that when she found her phone the sixty seconds would be up.
The phone was still vibrating when she pressed the TALK button and held it to her ear.
“Three seconds left,” the voice said. “I didn’t think you were going to make it.”
So far—from leaving the lunchroom, to her encounter with Chad Cooper, to entering room 218—she had managed to hold back the tears. Now they sprang freely, running down her face.
“Why are you doing this?”
“Do you know what I find interesting? You denied being Elizabeth Piccioni only once. Then I mentioned killing your son and you immediately dropped the pretense. Why do you think that is?”
“Please”—clearly sobbing now—“I don’t know what this is about.”
“I also find it interesting that you ended back up in a school. Only you’re not a real teacher now, are you? What’s the proper word for someone like you?”
Her legs had become much too weak so she pulled out the chair and sat down and propped her elbow on the desk and cradled her head with her free hand.
“Elizabeth? I asked you a question.”
“Teacher’s assistant,” she murmured. “I’m a teacher’s assistant.”
“What does that pay—barely minimum wage? Do you even get health benefits?”
“Please … let my son go.”
She paused, holding her breath.
“I mean, you present such a solid argument. Plus, you asked nicely. Why shouldn’t I let your son go?”
She stared down at the desktop, at the tests spread out before her. They were the ones she had graded only a few hours ago, Mary reviewing them before she added the scores into the computer.
“Elizabeth?” When she didn’t answer, the voice said, “Elizabeth, answer me.”
“If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m not going to let your son go. I will promise you this, though—if you do exactly what I tell you to do, you will get him back alive and without a scratch.”
Steeling herself, taking shallow breaths, she said, “What do you want from me?”
“We’ll get to that. First, let’s go over the usual bullshit. No police. No talking about this to anyone. I’m keeping tabs on you, and any slight indication you’ve broken my simple rules, your son dies.”
She was silent, staring down at the test on top of the pile, a quiz about volcanoes and earthquakes that was scored a 63%. It belonged to Dillon Bockian, a sweet boy but not very bright, whose parents she was pretty sure paid him hardly any attention at home.
She’d been sniffing back the tears, wiping at them, but one managed to escape and flee down her cheek. It paused on her chin and hung there for a second before it fell, splashing on the red ink marking Dillon’s test.
She whispered, “Who are you?”
“You can call me Cain.”
“The world’s first murderer.”
“Well, that’s open for debate. If anything, I think he was just a troubled, misunderstood individual. Now, Elizabeth, listen carefully, because I’m going to say this only once.”