I'm in that lovely space between consciousness and
sleep. I feel no pain thanks to the morphine pump and I can
almost believe that the muscles, tendons and skin of my left
arm have knitted themselves back together, leaving my skin
smooth and pale. My curly brown hair once again falls softly
down my back, my favorite earrings dangle from my ears and I
can lift both sides of my mouth in a wide smile without much
pain at the thought of my children. Yes, drugs are a
wonderful thing. But the problem is that while the carefully
prescribed and doled-out narcotics by the nurses wonderfully
dull the edges of this nightmare, I know that soon enough
this woozy, pleasant feeling will fall away and all that I
will be left with is pain and the knowledge that Augie and
P.J. are thousands of miles away from me. Sent away to the
place where I grew up, the town I swore I would never return
to, the house I swore I would never again step into, to the
man I never wanted them to meet.
The tinny melody of the ringtone that Augie, my
thirteen-year-old daughter, programmed into my cell phone is
pulling me from my sleep. I open one eye, the one that
isn't covered with a thick ointment and crusted shut,
and call out for my mother, who must have stepped out of the
room. I reach for the phone that is sitting on the tray
table at the side of my bed and the nerve endings in my
bandaged left arm scream in protest at the movement. I
carefully shift my body to pick up the phone with my good
hand and press the phone to my remaining ear.
"Hello." The word comes out half-formed, breathless
and scratchy, as if my lungs were still filled with smoke.
"Mom?" Augie's voice is quavery, unsure. Not
sounding like my daughter at all. Augie is confident, smart,
a take-charge, no one is ever going to walk all over
me kind of girl.
"Augie? What's the matter?" I try to blink the
fuzziness of the morphine away; my tongue is dry and sticks
to the roof of my mouth. I want to take a sip of water from
the glass sitting on my tray, but my one working hand holds
the phone. The other lies useless at my side. "Are you
okay? Where are you?"
There are a few seconds of quiet and then Augie continues.
"I love you, Mom," she says in a whisper that ends
in quiet sobs.
I sit up straight in my bed, wide awake now. Pain shoots
through my bandaged arm and up the side of my neck and face.
"Augie, what's the matter?"
"I'm at school." She is crying in that way she
has when she is doing her damnedest not to. I can picture
her, head down, her long brown hair falling around her face,
her eyes squeezed shut in determination to keep the tears
from falling, her breath filling my ear with short, shallow
puffs. "He has a gun. He has P.J. and he has a gun."
"Who has P.J.?" Terror clutches at my chest.
"Tell me, Augie, where are you? Who has a gun?"
"I'm in a closet. He put me in a closet."
My mind is spinning. Who could be doing this? Who would do
this to my children? "Hang up," I tell her.
"Hang up and call 9-1-1 right now, Augie. Then call me
back. Can you do that?" I hear her sniffles.
"Augie," I say again, more sharply. "Can you do
"Yeah," she finally says. "I love you, Mom,"
she says softly.
"I love you, too." My eyes fill with tears and I can
feel the moisture pool beneath the bandages that cover my
I wait for Augie to disconnect when I hear three quick
shots, followed by two more and Augie's piercing screams.
I feel the bandages that cover the left side of my face peel
away, my own screams loosening the adhesive holding them in
place; I feel the fragile, newly grafted skin begin to
unravel. I am scarcely aware of the nurses and my mother
rushing to my side, tearing the phone from my grasp.
My pants are still damp from when Noah Plum pushed me off
the shoveled sidewalk into a snowbank after we got off the
bus and were on our way into school this morning. Noah Plum
is the biggest asshole in eighth grade but for some reason
I'm the only one who has figured this out and I've
only lived here for eight weeks and everyone else has lived
here for their entire lives. Except for maybe Milana Nevara,
whose dad is from Mexico and is the town veterinarian. But
she moved here when she was two so she may as well have been
born here, anyway.
The classroom is freezing and my fingers are numb with the
cold. Mr. Ellery says it's because it is not supposed to
be below zero at the end of March and the boiler has been
put out to pasture. Mr. Ellery, my teacher and one of the
only good things about this school, is sitting at his desk
grading papers. Everyone, except Noah, of course, is writing
in their notebooks. Each day after lunch we start class with
journal time and we can write about anything we want to
during the first ten minutes of class. Mr. Ellery said we
could even write the same word over and over for the entire
time and Noah asked, "What if it's a bad word?"
"Knock yourself out," Mr. Ellery said, and everyone
laughed. Mr. Ellery always gives time for people to read
what they've written out loud if they'd like to.
I've never shared. No way I'm going to let these
morons know what I'm thinking. I've read Harriet
the Spy and I keep my notebook with me all the time.
Never let it out of my sight.
In my old school in Arizona, there were over two hundred
eighth graders in my grade and we had different teachers for
each subject. In Broken Branch there are only twenty-two of
us so we have Mr. Ellery for just about every subject. Mr.
Ellery, besides being really cute, is the absolutely best
teacher I've ever had. He's funny, but never makes
fun of anyone and isn't sarcastic like some teachers
think is so hilarious. He also doesn't let people get
away with making crap out of anyone. All he has to do is
stare at the person and they shut up. Even Noah Plum.
Mr. Ellery always writes a journal prompt on the dry erase
board in case we can't think of what to write about.
Today he has written "During spring break I am going
Even Mr. Ellery's stare doesn't work today; everyone
is whispering and smiling because they are excited about
vacation. "All right, folks," Mr. Ellery says.
"Get down to work and if we have some time left over
we'll play Pictionary."
"Yesss!" the kids around me hiss. Great. I open my
notebook to the next clean page and begin writing.
"During spring break we're going to fly back to
Arizona to see our mother." The only sounds in the
classroom are the scratch of pencils on paper and
Erika's annoying sniffles; she always has a runny nose
and gets up twenty times a day to get a tissue. "I
don't care if I ever see snow or cows ever again. I
don't care if I ever see my grandfather again." I am
hoping with all my might that instead of coming back to
Broken Branch after spring break, my mother will be well
enough for us to come home. My grandfather tells us this
isn't going to happen. My mother is far from being able
to come home from the hospital. My mom will be in Arizona
until she is out of the hospital and well enough to get on a
plane and come here so Grandma and Grandpa, who I met for
the first time ever a couple months ago, can take care of
all of us. But it doesn't matter what my grandpa
saysafter spring break, I am not coming back to Broken
A sharp crack, like a branch snapped in half during an ice
storm, makes me look up from my notebook. Mr. Ellery hears
it, too, and stands up from behind his desk and walks to the
classroom door, steps into the hallway and comes back in
shrugging his shoulders. "Looks like someone broke a
window at the end of the hallway. I'm going to go check.
You guys stay in your seats. I'll be right back."
Before he can even leave the classroom the shaky voice of
Mrs. Lowell, the school secretary, comes on the intercom.
"Teachers, this is a Code Red Lockdown. Go to your safe
A snort comes from Noah. "Go to your safe place," he
says, mimicking Mrs. Lowell. No one else says a thing and we
all stare at Mr. Ellery, waiting for him to tell us what to
do next. I haven't been here long enough to know what a
Code Red Lockdown is. But it can't be good.
The morning the man with the gun walked into Evelyn
Oliver's classroom, she was wearing two items she had
vowed during her forty-three-year career as a teacher never
to wear. Denim and rhinestones. Mrs. Oliver was a firm
believer that a teacher should look like a teacher.
Well-groomed, blouses with collars, skirts and pantsuits
crisply ironed, dress shoes polished. None of that nonsense
younger teachers wore these days. Miniskirts, tennis shoes,
plunging necklines. Tattoos, for goodness' sake. For
instance, Mr. Ellery, the young eighth-grade teacher, had a
tattoo on his right arm. A series of bold black slashes and
swoops that Mrs. Oliver recognized as Asian in origin.
"It means teacher in Chinese," Mr. Ellery,
wearing a sleeveless T-shirt, told her after,
embarrassingly, he caught her staring at his deltoid muscle
one stifling-hot August afternoon during in-service week
when all the teachers were preparing their classrooms for
the school year. Mrs. Oliver sniffed in disapproval, but
really she couldn't help but wonder how painful it must
be to have someone precisely and methodically inject ink
into one's skin.
Casual Fridays were the worst, with teachers, even the older
ones, wearing denim and sweatshirts emblazoned with the
school name and logothe Broken Branch Consolidated
But on this unusually bitter March day, the last day school
was in session before spring break, Mrs. Oliver had on the
denim jumper she now knew she was going to die while
wearing. Shameful, she thought, after all these years of
razor-sharp pleats and itchy support hose.
Last week, after all the other third graders had left for
the day, Mrs. Oliver had tentatively opened the crumpled
striped pink-and-yellow gift bag handed to her by Charlotte,
a skinny, disheveled eight-year-old with shoulder-length,
burnished-black hair that chronically housed a persistent
family of lice.
"What's this, Charlotte?" Mrs. Oliver asked in
surprise. "My birthday isn't until this summer."
"I know," Charlotte answered with a gap-toothed
grin. "But my mom and me thought you'd get more use
out of it if I gave it to you now."
Mrs. Oliver expected to find an apple-scented candle or
homemade cookies or a hand-painted birdhouse inside, but
instead pulled out a denim stone-washed jumper with
rhinestones painstakingly arranged in the shape of a rainbow
twinkling up at her. Charlotte looked expectantly up at Mrs.
Oliver through the veil of bangs that covered her normally
mischievous gray eyes.
"I Bedazzled it myself. Mostly," Charlotte
explained. "My mom helped with the rainbow." She
placed a grubby finger on the colorful arch. "Roy V.
Big. Red, orange, yellow, violet, blue, indigo, green. Just
like you said." Charlotte smiled brightly, showing her
small, even baby teeth, still all intact.
Mrs. Oliver didn't have the heart to tell Charlotte that
the correct mnemonic for remembering the colors in the
rainbow was Roy G. Biv, but took comfort in that fact that
she at least knew all the colors of the rainbow if not the
proper order. "It's lovely, Charlotte," Mrs.
Oliver said, holding the dress in front of her. "I can
tell you worked hard on it."
"I did," Charlotte said solemnly. "For two
weeks. I was going to Bedazzle a birthday cake on the front
but then my mom said you might wear it more if it wasn't
so holidayish. I almost ran out of beads. My little brother
thought they were Skittles."
"I will certainly get a lot of wear out of it. Thank
you, Charlotte." Mrs. Oliver reached over to pat
Charlotte on the shoulder and Charlotte immediately leaned
in and wrapped her arms around Mrs. Oliver's thick
middle, pressing her face into the buttons of her starched
white blouse. Mrs. Oliver felt a tickle beneath her
iron-gray hair and resisted the urge to scratch.
It was Mrs. Oliver's husband, Cal, who had convinced her
to wear the dress. "What can it hurt?" he asked just
this morning when he caught her standing in front of her
open closet, looking at the jumper garishly glaring right
back at her.
"I don't wear denim to school, and I'm certainly
not going to start wearing it just before I retire," she
said, not looking him in the eye, remembering how Charlotte
had rushed eagerly into the classroom at the beginning of
the week to see if she was wearing the dress.
"She worked on it for two weeks," Cal reminded her
at the breakfast table.
"It's not professional," she snapped, thinking
of how on each passing day this week, Charlotte's
shoulders wilted more and more as she entered the room to
find her teacher wearing her typical wool-blend slacks,
blouse and cardigan.
"Her fingers bled," Cal said through a
mouthful of oatmeal.
"It's supposed to be ten below outside today.
It's too cold to wear a dress," Mrs. Oliver told her
husband, miserably picturing how Charlotte wouldn't even
look her way yesterday, defiantly pursing her lips and
refusing to answer any questions directed at her.
"Wear long johns and a turtleneck underneath," her
husband said mildly, coming up behind her and kissing her on
the neck in the way that even after forty-five years of
marriage caused her to shiver deliciously.
Because he was rightCal was always rightshe had
brushed him away in irritation and told him she was going to
be late for school if she didn't get dressed right then.
Wearing the jumper, she left him sitting at the kitchen
table finishing his oatmeal, drinking coffee and reading the
newspaper. She hadn't told him she loved him, she
hadn't kissed his wrinkled cheek in goodbye.
"Don't forget to plug in the Crock-Pot," she
called as she stepped outside into the soft gray morning.
The sun hadn't emerged yet, but it was the warmest it
would be that day, the temperature tumbling with each
passing hour. As she climbed into her car to make the
twenty-five-minute drive from her home in Dalsing to the
school in Broken Branch, she didn't realize it could be
the last time she made that journey.
It was worth it, she supposed, after seeing Charlotte's
face transform from jaded disappointment to pure joy when
she saw that Mrs. Oliver was actually wearing the dress. Of
course Cal was right. Wearing the impractical, gaudy thing
wouldn't hurt anything; she'd had to suffer the
raised eyebrows in the teacher's lounge, but that was
nothing new. And it obviously had meant a lot to Charlotte,
who was now cowering in her desk along with fifteen other
third graders, gaping up at the man with the gun. At least,
Mrs. Oliver thought, shocking herself with the
inappropriateness of the idea, if he shot her in the chest,
she couldn't be buried in the damn thing.