Back to School — April 2012
‘Damn it Hawkeye, get out of the way!’
Alice tore down the staircase and stumbled over the bundle of fur parked at the bottom. The terrier scampered away to the security of his kennel.
Alice readjusted the satchel on her shoulder. She scooped her coat up off the floor tossed it over her other shoulder.
‘Whoa there speedy!’
A voice from the adjacent room impeded her beeline to the door. Dan casually emerged from the kitchen, his scruffy white tee loosely draped over paint-stained sweatpants. A mess of black hair sat unevenly atop his head. His face suggested his razor had lay idle for weeks, and tattered slippers barely clung to his feet.
Those bloody things belong in the trash. They’re hideous.
Despite his just-got-outta-bed appearance, Alice did revel in his handsomeness even if he did appear homeless. Dan was blessed with features reserved for movie stars, iced with a smile that could knock a girl of her chair.
He took a swig of coffee, pecked Alice on the cheek, and wedged a chunk of bagel between her lips.
‘Eat,’ he ordered.
The aroma of freshly brewed coffee aroused her nostrils and Alice wondered whether she had to time to down a piccolo. She decided against it.
‘I gotta run!’ she mumbled, as crumbs of bagel escaped onto the floor.
‘Don’t give the kids a hard time. Remember I won’t be home tonight. Poker.’
His voice trailed off as he turned back to the kitchen, and the fresh newspaper he had rolled out for himself on the breakfast bar. Alice swallowed the last bite of bagel and headed out the door.
Icy shards of rain stung her face. The crisp morning wind was relentless but she didn’t cower from it. She sucked it all into her lungs. Lapping up every fresh millilitre of oxygen her body would allow. The re-boot switch had been flicked and she felt alive for the first time in a long time. The two-week holiday in St. Lucia helped, as did the new piece of jewellery adorning her left hand.
Dan had finally proposed, and in the most unsurprising way. Alice had learnt after such a long time not to expect the unexpected from her handsome, but rather unimaginative beau.
A candlelit dinner at a nice restaurant. Two glasses of champagne delivered to the table, suspiciously before either of them had even picked up a menu. Alice spotted the diamond ring too early so Dan jumped up from his seat and bumped the table. Both flutes teetered dangerously as Dan knelt down.
‘Of course!’ Alice impatiently blurted out before the poor boy could stutter the nervy words from his arid mouth.
Alice tossed her coat and scuffed leather satchel onto the back seat of her car, which only added to the chaotic mess of books and folders that had taken up residence long ago.
She turned the key. Nothing. The morning chill engulfed the mower-sized engine. Numerous twists later, the two-door hatch jerked to life. Her frozen fingers valiantly fiddled with the heater knob on the front panel. If luck was with her, lousy gusts of warmth might spurt out. She was grateful her journey was so quick. She pulled onto Oxbow St and reminisced about Dan’s hopeless proposal. A grin was plastered on her face and nothing would get her down.
The sputter of the engine broke the still morning air. She turned onto Kallback Rd, and carved through the heavy fog. Several miles of road weaved between small hills and timber homesteads on large properties, and eventually into the centre of town. The odd car and pedestrian emerged but Parker was a sleepy place. Kallback Rd was the only way in or out. Two main roads hosted the majority of stores and the school was tucked in behind. Parker lay at the foot of Dunford Peak, a mountainous range that overlooked the greater city of Winston.
Alice pulled into the school grounds and killed the engine. She was an hour early, but she was excited to see her kids again. Before the holiday, Alice was terrified she would never feel this again. Her decision to be a teacher had been set in stone from an early age. She idolised her mother, so it was only natural to follow in her footsteps. Not once did she doubt her choice. Not when she graduated school, nor when she enrolled in University, and definitely not when she settled into her career at Parker Elementary. But after almost 10 years, Alice felt the first pangs of doubt creep in toward the end of last year. The joy of teaching waned, and the daily interaction with her kids made her more irritated and frustrated than ever before. She counted on the previous Christmas break to steer her back on course. It didn’t. A new year and six months later and doubt still gnawed away at her, however the magnificent holiday and long-awaited proposal helped clear the cobwebs. She was back.
She gathered up her coat and satchel, slammed the door without locking it, and hurried along the walkway toward the staff room. Crime in Parker simply wasn’t a thing, but if by a slim stroke of luck her bucket of bolts was stolen, Alice would extend her gratitude to the thief, and enjoy a new car with a working heater.
‘Morning Alby!’ she yelled across the line-marked square of asphalt.
The asphalt playground flowed onto a grassy patch half the size of a football field. Albert, the maintenance man, was busy at the opposite end of the field. His beanie was low, eyes almost covered. Tattered earmuffs engulfed his tiny head, which only made his terrible hearing even worse. He continued scraping the snow and leaves without looking up.
Alice leapt up the stairwell and embraced the musty familiarity of the staffroom. The teachers vastly outnumbered the miserly space, but she found comfort amid the chaos. When she stepped into that staffroom for the first time so many years ago, she didn’t care about the clutter, or the foul smell. That staffroom represented everything she had worked for, and everything she wanted in the future.
Safety and security. A place I can rely on.
Frail timber desks had been dumped in the middle of the room long ago, and were laden with folders, paper, books, coffee mugs, reading glasses, picture frames, rusty staplers, and chewed up pens. Old leather lounges with large gashes spewing foam, sat dormant under a grimy window overlooking the playground. Cupboards wearily leaned against each other, ready to topple like dominoes. The printer, photocopier, and fax, separate machines from a previous era, were awkwardly jammed into the corner. Electrical cords skirted between chairs and snaked under loose mats. There was a distinct lack of greenery. One pitiful cactus on Frank’s desk and a soon-to-be-dead fern sagging over the edge of Henrietta’s.
Why don’t I have a plant?
Alice performed her usual dance to reach her desk.
Sidestep left past Denise’s chair, hop over the printer cord, sidestep right past the filing cabinet, swivel 180 degrees, then back up, ass first into the chair. Ten out of ten she thought, giggling as she pictured a panel of impressed judges.
Alice hung her coat over the back of the chair. She dropped her satchel on the ground and kicked it under the desk. She unsuccessfully tried to jam it further underneath, so as not to intrude on the already minimal leg room. She contorted her body and manoeuvred her head underneath the desk. She wedged the bag into its final resting place with the palm of her hand. She sat upright and wondered what state her hair was in. Before her break, this trivial annoyance was enough to set her off. An angry rumble, followed by a heavy sigh, and finally a voice in her head telling her to calm down. But not today. Today she felt at ease. She was almost happy.
‘Welcome back Miss Humley!’
A deep voice bellowed from the adjacent hallway. Alice shot up and her heart threatened to exit her chest. She turned toward the looming figure in the doorway.
‘You scared the shit outta me!’
Principal Mark Jeffrey flashed his toothy grin.
‘Have a good trip? Anything you want to share?’
Parker was a small town. Mark knew she was engaged; but he wanted to hear it from her. After all, that was the polite thing to do. Alice smiled sarcastically and flicked her left hand up in front of his face. The diamond sparkled against the dim, dusty staffroom.
‘Congratulations. It’s about time,’ he said.
Mark eyed the ring closer.
‘Nice rock. A little small.’
Another cheeky grin.
‘I’m happy for you. He’s a good guy. Ready to go again?’
‘I am. I can’t wait to see the kids.’
The sincerity of her comment caught Mark off-guard. He opened his mouth to reply but refrained. Alice quickly learned her attempt to conceal her unhappiness at work prior to the holiday had failed.
‘Ellie should be in soon. Catch up with her before the bell. It’s good to have you back Al.’
Mark disappeared and Alice was grateful he had a separate office. He was big and ill-suited to the staffroom. She was briefly jolted with guilt. Mark was a family friend and had known her parents from before she was born. He welcomed her to Parker Elementary with open arms.
A petite figure scurried through the door. Thick-rimmed glasses, white blouse, and a black skirt zipped through the chaotic mess of desks with the skill of a ninja and appeared at her desk.
‘Oh my god! Show me, show me, show me!’
Alice winced at the shrill of the high-pitched voice and noted Ellie’s ninja skills clearly didn’t extend to being silent or discreet. Her nerves barely had time to recover from the sensory assault when Ellie grabbed her hand, tugged it toward her and stared open-mouthed at the ring.
Settle down Ellie, it’s not that big.
Alice was hit with a second jolt of guilt and she silently sought redemption.
Dan did the best he could. I didn’t want a big ring anyway.
Alice never gave the impression that she wanted a jaw-dropping ornament glued to her finger. She wasn’t that sort of girl, but if she was being honest, the tiny size of the diamond had crept into her mind once, maybe twice.
‘It’s gorgeous! You’re so lucky.’ Ellie’s voice trailed off and she found herself contemplating her own prospects of marriage.
A little jealous Ellie?
Alice again felt a twinge of guilt but no redemption this time.
‘El, you’ll be next!’
‘Rob barely knows I exist!’
Alice wanted to agree, but refrained from nodding, instead offering a sympathetic smile. Alice had known Ellie a long time, mostly because Ellie went to school with Alice’s younger sister, Amber. As an only child, and devoid of friends, she took Alice on as an unsuspecting mentor, someone she found guidance from. So much so, that she too pursued teaching and conveniently began her internship at Parker Elementary. A shortage of casual teachers led Ellie’s internship to include a stint as a substitute teacher while Alice was away.
The snarky thoughts toward Ellie were born years earlier when Ellie tried, unsuccessfully, to pick up Dan at a party. Ellie was uncharacteristically drunk, and could barely stand. She made a flippant comment toward Alice’s now fiancée. So flippant, the morning after Dan had no idea what had happened and didn’t even realise Ellie was at the party. But Alice could never forget.
‘They behave themselves? What about Timothy? No outbursts? No problems with the Frogworths, or Libby’s parents?’
Ellie felt like a deer in the headlights.
‘Uh. Yeah. No. They’re all fine,’ she finally uttered.
‘I’m sure they can’t wait to see you.’
Alice pulled a small box from her satchel and handed it to the startled fawn.
Ellie held up a pair of silver earrings. Fragments of light bounced off the intertwined slivers of red and orange. She was speechless.
‘Thank you for looking after them El. Plus I missed your birthday.’
Alice gave her a quick smile. Ellie slipped her small frame between the desks and flung herself at Alice.
‘They’re absolutely gorgeous!’
Alice felt uneasy. She was locked in place, arms pinned to her sides. She quickly wiggled free and retreated to her chair. Ellie could only stare at the earrings as she left the staffroom for her pre-bell morning cigarette.
Alice settled into her chair and stared out to the playground. The fog evaporated and the sun took centre stage. Small voices multiplied. Balls bounced against the wall and laughter echoed through the hallways. Her colleagues filed into the staff room in quick succession. Following the same step-by-step manual, they welcomed Alice back, asked how the holiday was, enquired if there was any news, and then gawked, open-mouthed at the diamond ring. They completed the final step by dancing around the room to their respective desks.
Alice sorted through a pile of notes Ellie had left her. Each note was decorated with pink sticky labels to provide extra snippets of information Ellie felt were useful. Alice decided most of them were better suited to the trashcan and duly obliged. She grabbed her folder and headed for Room 108.
My classroom. My own group of children.
She strode along the north side of the playground and into the classroom, where twenty-four bright little faces beamed smiles in her direction.
‘Where did ya go Miss Humley? Did you swim with sharks Miss Humley? Did you get married Miss Humley? My pop said you went to Hawaii Miss Humley. Did you get us anything Miss Humley?’
Alice laughed and waited for the inquisition to recede, especially Jared’s question about presents.
Shit, I left them at home.
‘I’ve got something fun we can do this morning.’
Alice pinned colourful postcards around the room. The kids were awestruck by the picturesque island vistas of sunny St. Lucia, a distant universe to the cold, biting weather that had engulfed Parker.
‘I want you all to draw your very own island.’
She roamed the room and inspected the crayon-coloured islands, complete with top-heavy stick figures, disproportionate beach balls, multi-coloured umbrellas, and oddly shaped fish. She returned to her desk and drifted back to her own island.
The lunchtime bell rang. Alice fell into her chair in the staffroom and grabbed some muesli bars from her satchel. The morning had been easy. The kids were well-behaved and happy. The familiar thrill returned and Alice felt a spring in her step again. After lunch, she watched the children as they eyed the math problem on the chalkboard. The cogs in their little brains would eventually click into place, and they would triumphantly scribble an answer. Not always the correct answer, but Alice didn’t mind.
Alice stayed long after the children went home. The staffroom was deserted. Alice glanced at her watch.
Albert appeared from nowhere.
‘I’m callin’ it a day. Best if you do the same.’
‘Thanks Alby, few things to tidy up then I’m outta here.’
‘Ok, ’night Miss.’
Alice pulled out of the school grounds just after 10pm. She turned onto Kallback Rd and headed south. The streets were dead. Two marbles of light poked up in her rearview mirror. They grew larger and larger, completely filling up her rearview mirror. Then the mirror went dark as a battered pickup veered across to the wrong side of the road and overtook her sluggish hatch.
Slow down moron!
Alice eased off the accelerator and watched the maniac fade into the distance. She turned the radio on and continued along Kallback Rd. There were no street lights and the line markings had long ago faded. She knew the road like the back of her hand but was cautious nonetheless. Occasional glowing specks dotted the distant landscape but she felt alone.
Alice trembled inside the cold, metal hatch as the heater stalled again. Her lips quivered and turned a shade of blue. Her imagination clicked into gear to escape the icy cave.
Standing naked in the steamy shower, she felt the gentle stream of hot water running down her neck and back. She got out, and wrapped herself in her warm, fluffy bathrobe. The embrace of the lounge came next, and the evening would be finished off with a tall, no, extra tall glass of red. Her eyes felt heavy.
The hatch veered off the road and the stark rumble of the tires snapped her back to reality. Alice slapped her cheeks a few times and turned the radio up.
Wake up Al!
She sang horribly out of tune but she didn’t care. Her first day back was a success. The holiday had helped and she felt ready to settle back into her old routine.
As she rounded the next bend, two red lights pierced her eyes. She slowed. The battered pickup was off to the side of the road. Idling. Exhaust fumes spewed from the larger than normal pipe. Alice could see a silhouette through the back window. It wasn’t moving.
Alice slowly passed the pickup and glanced sideways. She felt her stomach drop as her eyes darted back to the road. As she accelerated, the tyres of the pickup screeched. The heavy vehicle pulled onto the road and straight in behind her. The headlights were blinding. Even more than before. They flashed once. Twice. The beams shot back from her rearview mirror and stung her eyes. Alice punched the accelerator harder, her foot threatening to pierce the floor. Suddenly Alice felt her hatch shudder, and the steering wheel violently shook in her hands.
What the hell!?
One of the headlights dissolved. Alice checked her side mirror. The pickup had pulled back. As she drove over the crest of a hill, the remaining headlight disappeared. With the relief of darkness in her rear-view mirror, she drove a further mile and pulled to the side of the road. Her eyes were still glued to the mirror as she waited. Nothing. She hesitantly opened the door, walked to the back of the hatch, and inspected the damage.
As she bent down to take a closer look at the bumper, the pickup roared to life and the solitary light exploded from the darkness. Alice scrambled back to the driver seat, crunched the gears, and planted her foot. The hatch stuttered and shot forward. The engine squealed. Every sinew of metal strained as the tiny vehicle struggled to gain momentum. Like pushing a shopping trolley through mud. The single headlight loomed. With one trembling hand tightly gripping the steering wheel, Alice blindly fumbled for her bag on the passenger seat. She dug inside and found her phone. She dropped it. Her eyes darted back to the mirror and the headlight was closer. She grabbed her phone again.
The hatch was rammed again and the phone shot out of her sweaty hand like a rocket. Her electronic saviour smashed into the windscreen and disappeared into the darkness below. The hatch veered left, then right. Every loose nut and bolt rattled. The bald tyres skated off the asphalt and onto the gravel only a few feet from an embankment. One last jerk of the steering wheel caused the hatch to jump off the gravel, back to the asphalt and abruptly stop. The engine was cooked.
Alice looked out the window. The hatch had swung ninety degrees and Alice was staring back down the middle of the road. Amputated debris from the hatch littered the road, and the single headlight had stopped fifty yards away. Her vulnerable ball of tin was firmly in its sights.
The pickup roared to life and came again. The thunderous engine filled the air and Alice felt her bones vibrate. A slither of tin separated her from the menacing grill hurtling in her direction. Her head throbbed and she could barely see. Alice tried to get out. The seatbelt jammed. She furiously yanked at the strap but it only made it tighter. Her chest was pinned and she struggled to breathe. She flicked her eyes back to the oncoming ramrod. The wild beast could smell blood. With her last ounce of strength she overpowered the seatbelt and dove toward the passenger seat.
The full weight of the pickup slammed the side of the hatch. It offered no resistance and crumpled like foil. Shattered glass flew into the sky and fell like rain. The disfigured ball of metal flipped over and wedged itself into the embankment.
Alice came to. She slowly opened her eyes, expecting to see her bedroom. Dan lying beside her. The red flash of the bedside clock. She didn’t.
Smoke hissed from the engine and loose car parts still rattled. She adjusted her eyes. Her leg was wedged in a vice that felt as though it was still being tightened. She wanted to cry out but held her breath. Movement caused pain to shoot through her body. She tried to wriggle free but she was trapped. The roof had caved in and pressed hard against the right side of her body. It was pitch black. She spat out a loose tooth, which was only replaced by the nauseating taste of blood.
Alice heard another noise. The heavy metal door of the pickup. Footsteps crunched through the gravel. Alice realised the other driver had not yet accomplished what he or she had set out to do.
Oh god, please help!
Alice couldn’t scream. Her lungs felt the size of marbles. The sirens grew louder. As did the footsteps. She held her breath and hoped to blend in with the wreckage. A silhouette appeared where the windscreen once was. Alice trembled. A raspy voice entered the decimated cabin of the hatch and echoed through her eardrums.
‘If you can hear me little lady, I’ll be seeing you real soon.’
The silhouette vanished. Alice trembled as the footsteps faded. The metal door slammed and the squeal of tyres filled the night. It felt like an eternity for the roar of the pickup to fade as the sirens took over.
Alice gazed up through a small gap in the mutilated ball of metal, and finally took a painful breath of relief as red and blue shades illuminated the night sky.
* * * * * * *