This is the third day, and there are more empty seats. The spread of sickness is to be expected at the beginning of every quarter. Children, after all, are the ultimate carriers of germs. They touch what others touch, they lick whatever others lick, and they never wash their hands, no matter what the teacher tells them. The springtime will breed lice, and there will be handfuls of students missing then, too.
Never in Anna’s five years of teaching, however, have this many students been absent at once. There are three students in her third-grade class, and they aren’t any of her favorites.
“We’re light today,” Anna says. “Is everyone sick?”
None of the three say a word. The one Anna dislikes most—Mat spelled with one T—stares out the window. He is a bully in the making, like his older brother who terrorizes cats, and his father who owns the lumberyard in town. Often Mat can be found sitting on top of another boy laughing at the power his strong body possesses. He comes from a stock of brutish men. His older brother is brutish, his father is brutish. Mat is brutish. Poor Nicolas (absent) knows about Mat’s brutishness and Joshua (absent) knows and even Anon (absent). Especially Anon, a sliver of a boy who smiles at everything, even with Mat on top of him pulling at his curls, screaming I am king, which coincidentally is his last name.
“It seems there might be a bug going around,” Anna says.
One of the students, Jack, raises his hand, smudged in mud. “What kind of bug is it, Miss Anna? I like bugs.”
Jack enjoys a peculiar affection for bugs. Anna hears all about it after every recess with the lunch parents’ reports. Jack tears worms in half and throws them at the girls. Jack pinches crickets with his fingers, sometimes pulling their legs off. For Show-n-Tell one Friday he brings a mason jar of dead lightning bugs, having forgotten to crack the lid.
“I know you do, Jack,” Anna says. “You’re very good with bugs.”
The boy smiles and though she does not favor him and all his bug things he is sweet and everything he does comes from curiosity.
“I learned a new word,” Misty says.
“Remember to raise your hand, Misty,” Anna says.
Misty raises her hand. “I learned a new word.”
“And what’s that?”
Anna shakes her head. Misty’s father is a big shot of some sort. He usually drops Misty off in something European and zooms away. Not once has he come to parent-teacher conferences or any of the PTA meetings. He refused to sign the permission slip for Misty to go on a field trip to the art museum because, to him—as expressed in a terse one-paragraph note—art pollutes the mind.
“Please don’t say that again, Misty.”
Misty furrows her brow the way an eight-year-old does when something perplexes them. “Is that a bad word, too?”
“Which one? Liberal? Asshead?”
“The second one.”
“I know a lot of bad words, don’t I?” Misty straightens in her chair and smiles, a proud and smug smile that indents her cheeks.
“Yes, you do.”
“Sorry, Miss Anna,” Misty says, though she is clearly not sorry.
“It’s okay, Misty,” Anna says, repeating her daily mantra: I am Miss Anna. This is my name. I answer to this five days a week. These are my lovely students.
Through all of this Mat stares out the window, transfixed.
Anna walks to where Mat sits. She taps on his desk. “What is it you are seeing out there?”
Mat does not seem to register Anna’s voice. Whatever holds his gaze absorbs him entirely. Then, slowly, like someone regaining control of his speech, he says, “I am king.”
After school, Anna goes to the front office to turn in her attendance sheet only to find no one there, except the principal, Mr. Collins. His belly extends over his waistline, his plaid tie too short. The hem of his slacks floats slightly above his ankles. He is a caricature of a 1970s office manager, like the one she muses over in the comics section of the newspaper. Anna finds him odd. He has the habit of trying to sound more cultured than he really is, pontificating about scientific discoveries in obscure magazines. He goes about the office watering the plants that hang from the ceiling.
“The bug came here, too, I see,” Anna says.
Mr. Collins pauses in mid-pour. He waters a hanging fern whose foliage drapes over his thinning hair. It looks as if a green-tentacled monster has sucked onto his head.
Anna hides a laugh in the crook of her arm, feigning a cough.
“I read an article about bugs in Burma the other day,” Mr. Collins says. “Though it isn’t Burma anymore, is it? It’s Myanmar, correct? Yes, Myanmar. And scientists discovered this new species of bee. It’s a beautiful bee—silver. But do you know what is unique about this bee? It is alone. Solitary. Never in this world lived a solitary bee. They are usually a communal species. They live and buzz among each other. When the common honeybee leaves the hive it leaves to die. But not this bee in Burma. I mean Myanmar. This silver bee lives alone. If it dies no one would know.”
Anna often finds these monologue perplexing and entertaining. It makes the time go by at the weekly teacher meetings. Mr. Collins is like a bee himself, flitting here and there, a catalogue of school bylaws and guidelines and useless information about bees.
Today Anna is less patient. She smiles politely and pulls her bag further up her shoulder. “It seems everyone is sick,” Anna says.
“Sick,” he says. Mr. Collins puts the watering can on a desk.
Anna nods. “Maybe a flu going around. My class was lighter today.”
“Flu,” Mr. Collins says. He tilts his head.
“Or something. The staff, they’re absent, too, I see.”
“Absent,” Mr. Collins says.
Anna’s eyes widen, the way they do when one of her students says something inappropriate and unexpected, like liberal asshats. Mr. Collins is always a peculiar person, but now he seems suddenly robotic.
“There were only three in my class today,” Anna continues. “Whatever they have I don’t want.”
“Why yes,” Mr. Collins says, and it seems his brain catches up to his mouth. “Do you not find that fascinating, Miss Anna?”
Yes, I am Miss Anna. It is my name. I answer to this five days a week.
“The lonely silver bee of Burma. Now Myanmar. There is so much we do not know about the world.”
It is time to leave. There is no use in asking where Pamela and Yona are—the office managers who really make the school run. She misses their presence, their secret eye rolls when Mr. Collins goes on an informational tangent. She misses Pamela’s smile each and every weekday and that smile is infectious, even though Anna heard it through the faculty gossip mill that Pamela was having a hard time making ends meet after her husband went through another round of chemo. She misses Yona, who has the ability to snap a student still with a stare, who always said to Anna that they were the color in this one-toned school. “Diversity,” she’d say, “we are it, Miss Anna. Girls like us—we gotta stick.” Anna misses them, especially in moments when Mr. Collins is talking about silver bees.
Anna places her attendance sheet in the proper folder before waving and turning to leave. She hears Mr. Collins still talking about Burma—no, Myanmar—and bugs.
“I can leave the article under your door, Miss Anna. Imagine the lonely bee.”
Anna has lived in the flat part of the country most of her life, save for a brief stint at the university two hours away. She didn’t last long—half a semester—though it wasn’t because she didn’t enjoy her time. It was because her parents needed her home. Angel—their restaurant—couldn’t afford to pay for extra help. Anna returned to wait tables and do dishes, taking night classes at the community college, getting her associate’s degree and then a teaching certificate. How this made her parents proud. How they kept calling her teacher. How they said in Thailand, teachers were revered. It’s not like that here, where teachers are forgotten.
There was a time when Angel was the only place for Thai food. The food is good, as authentic as you can get with the limited ingredients in such a temperate climate. Her parents never sacrifice taste, even though customers sometimes want egg rolls or sweet and sour chicken, where the chicken is battered like a donut. Now there are three Thai restaurants in the fancier parts of town. Now the fancier parts of town are merging and spreading. Now what used to be an affordable mixed neighborhood is invaded by hipsters who wear tight shirts and tighter jeans and beanies even in the summer.
Anna notices more vacant storefronts with COMING SOON signs in large red letters. What is coming? Corporate chains buying out buildings and bulldozing ma and pop stores for parking lots. Nestled between two parking lots is Angel, a shack with a blinking neon light announcing THAI FOOD.
When Anna enters, her father says, “Look, Mom. Teacher is here.” He sits and watches the TV, a mini box attached to the ceiling.
Anna’s mother dries her hands on a dish towel. “Teacher, how are you?”
The restaurant is empty. “Slow day?” Anna says.
“Slow every day,” her father says. Then, “We got another offer.”
“How much this time?” Anna says.
“Enough.” Her mother wraps the towel around her hand.
“What are you going to do?”
“We’re thinking,” her father says.
“How long do you have?”
“The end of the week.”
“Too much thinking,” her mother says.
“Our lives,” her father says.
Her mother huffs. “If we sell,” her mother says, “We can move to the beach. We can lounge by the pool.”
“But then what?” her father says.
Anna has heard this before. Her father fears retirement. He fears his brain will shut off. As soon as he stepped foot in the country, he worked hard, worked long shifts at the canning factory, and when that shut down, he worked hard building Angel. His life has been about working hard. It is what he tells her every day. Work hard so you don’t need to work hard later in life. But it is later in life now. And he is still working hard. He knows no other mode.
“Maybe you should consider it,” Anna says. She rearranges the bottles of soy sauce and salt and pepper shakers at the empty tables. “If they are giving you a lot of money, maybe you can live an easy life.”
“Exactly,” her mother says.
Her father dismisses them with a wave of hand. “Money isn’t everything.”
“It is when you don’t have it,” her mother says.
“We get by,” her father says.
Her father ends the conversation, as he always does, with a word that silences the room. Anna understands her father. She also understands her mother. Whatever decision they choose to make will not be an easy one. What Anna fears most: if they are not able to make a decision, then it will be made for them.
On the TV, a politician waves to a crowd of journalists. He is an older gentleman with thinning white hair and round spectacles. Beside him is his much younger wife, who smiles with bright white teeth. Anna can’t hear what the newscasters are saying, but the chyron at the bottom of the screen reads: The class gap widens.
Anna lives in a small one-bedroom apartment, not far from Angel. It was the cheapest rent she could find. She notices more FOR RENT signs in her building. Even her neighbor’s place is vacant.
They weren’t friends—not really—but were friendly. When Anna bumped into her at the mailboxes, they were cordial the way strangers were. She knew the woman worked long hours and had a child with the same name as hers; Anna sometimes heard muffled crying through the walls, and the woman’s voice trying to soothe her little girl. “It’s okay, Anna. It’s okay.”
One time the woman’s bag of groceries split open, and out tumbled apples and oranges and cans of soup. A container of little cupcakes upended, the icing smearing the lid. Anna—the woman’s little girl—was busy eating one of the cupcakes, neon green frosting smudged across her face. The woman scrambled around the apartment building lobby, mumbling curses under her breath. A bag of rice ripped open, and grains scattered everywhere. There were a few people in the lobby, but no one stopped to help. One gentleman with a fedora stepped over the dispersed food. The little girl Anna kept saying mommymommymommy, I wantwantwant more cupcakes. The woman, face flushed, on her hands and knees and gathering whatever she could, kept hushing her child, kept saying in a second, darling, one second.
Anna stood by the entrance to the apartment building, watching at first. This was one of the saddest things she had ever seen, and this sadness made her think that people weren’t good at all, made her think the students in her class would someday turn into people who weren’t good, people who would not take the time to help a woman and her small child. Maybe, Anna thought, what was the point of people? What was the point of anything? She slipped into the building and began grabbing what she could, putting the items in her backpack. The woman said thank you and sorry, thank you and sorry, and Anna told her it wasn’t a problem. When the two of them picked everything up, the woman stared at the grains of rice on the tiled floor.
“I made a mess,” the woman said in a tired voice.
“Don’t worry about it,” Anna said.
The woman sighed, her little girl still clamoring for another cupcake.
“How old are you?” Anna said to the girl.
The girl went suddenly shy. She shut her mouth and hid her pigtailed head behind her mother’s leg.
“She’s three,” the woman said, her voice so soft Anna barely caught it. The woman patted her daughter’s head, her hand red and dry, like someone who had been washing dishes for long hours, like Anna’s hands when she washed dishes at Angel.
“You’re three?” Anna said. She knelt down to the girl’s level. “Pretty soon you’ll be big enough to be in my class. I’m Miss Anna. I teach third grade at the school down the street. You know where that is?”
The little girl Anna said nothing, but a smile crept onto her face.
“It’s okay if you don’t. Here, I have something for you.” Anna rummaged through her backpack, past all the groceries, and took out a sheet of stickers. She was a teacher after all, and teachers always had stickers. She pulled one off, a cartoon strawberry with eyes and a mouth that said Good job! “Here you go, sweetie.”
The girl emerged from behind her mother’s leg, and Anna put the sticker on her pink shirt.
“It’s a special sticker. If you scratch it, it smells like strawberries.”
The little girl scratched it and then took a sniff and smiled up at her mother. “Strawberries, mommy. Strawberries.”
The woman nodded, her face weary and pale. She kept looking at the mess. She kept shaking her head.
“I’ll clean it,” Anna said. “Don’t worry.”
At her apartment door, the woman dumped everything inside and hastily took whatever Anna held in her hands. Little Anna was still smelling her sticker. The woman smiled at Anna and nodded and then closed the door. The next day, Anna found a note of thanks written on an old receipt taped to her mailbox.
But now the woman and her child are gone. Anna wonders if they left in the middle of the night like gypsies, without a trace, without so much as a sound. She thinks it peculiar how quickly they disappeared, how in one night you could pack up a whole life, especially if your life included a child. Because of her years of teaching, she knows that children accrue stuff and rarely do they part with their stuff. That day, when she helped the woman with the groceries, she took a peek inside and noticed the chaotic mess that wasn’t unlike her classroom at the end of the day. She imagines it would have taken a week to box everything up and another to vacuum and sweep and dust and wipe away any drawings Little Anna left on the beige walls, which Anna is sure were many.
The door to her neighbor’s isn’t shut. Anna nudges it open. Inside is an empty room. The light is on in the kitchen, and it makes the white appliances glow unnaturally, as if spotlighted and on stage, a set in a play. Everything is unnatural, and it isn’t the emptiness of the apartment that makes Anna shudder. No, it is something else. Something that tightens Anna’s shoulders. In her ears is a slight buzz, like the sound of a TV without reception. She shakes the sound away and takes a step inside. The smell of the apartment is the smell of something new. The floors gleam. The apartment looks as if no one has ever lived in it. No evidence of human habitation.
Someone clears a throat. At the other end of the kitchen is a man in a blue suit and clipboard. His hair is short and well-kempt. He walks towards Anna, his dress shoes—meticulously shiny—clacking hard on the linoleum floor.
“Can I help you?” the man says, and then tilts his head. “I know you.”
Anna stammers. The appearance of this man takes her off guard. “Sorry. I—I didn’t know anyone was here.”
The man moves with assured purpose and talks a couple of bars louder than he should. “I know you,” he says again and then snaps his fingers. “Miss Anna.”
The man’s voice is so loud it is like a push, a shove. Anna nods. Yes, I am Miss Anna. It is my name. It is what I answer to five days a week. But her name out of this man’s mouth sounds harsh and violent.
“I’m Misty’s father.”
Liberal asshats. “Oh,” Anna begins, but is quickly cut off.
“Misty is something, isn’t she? She’s so smart. So bright. Just the other day, I was taking her to a new job site. I’m building new high-end apartments a few blocks from here. I was wanting them to look like old New England homes. Structures made of good wood. People just eat that Northeastern look up. We were having issues with building materials. There are always issues. I deal with issues all the time. Anyway, I was telling Misty that Daddy was having a hard time getting wood for the new apartments, and do you know what my bright daughter said?”
Before Anna can shake her head, Misty’s father goes on. “She said, ‘Daddy, trees make houses and buildings, right?’ I said, yeah. And she said, ‘There are so many trees in the world. Why don’t we cut them all down?’ Isn’t that so smart of my girl? Cut them all down, she said. I told her yes, but tree huggers would get their panties in a bunch if we did that. You aren’t a tree hugger, are you, Miss Anna?”
Before Anna can say she isn’t a tree hugger but she does love trees and cutting down all trees would be an environmental travesty, Misty’s father rolls right along. “And my girl Misty, she goes, ‘Why would anyone want to hug a tree? Trees don’t hug back. Trees are hard and scratchy and have ants on them. Yuck.’ Isn’t that just so smart of my girl? Brilliant, I tell you. I know someone in Harvard’s admissions office who has already agreed she’d be let in. Do you believe that? Of course you do. Why wouldn’t she be? I told my girl, ‘Well, honey, liberals do not want to see anything change. They don’t want anything to progress. They make Daddy’s job that much harder.’ And Misty said—she’s so smart, my girl—she said, ‘I hate liberals.’ ‘Me, too,’ I said.”
Misty’s father stares right at Anna. He smiles, his teeth eerily white. “You aren’t a liberal, are you, Miss Anna?”
“It doesn’t matter. I don’t care,” Misty’s father says, waving his hand dismissively. “What I care about is making money. Like renting out this place and all the other vacant apartments here.”
“Do you know what happened to the woman who lived here?” Anna speaks quickly, words tumbling out of her mouth. With a man like this, a man cocksure of himself and his place in the world, she has to speak quickly before he spouts off another invective about liberals and tree huggers.
“Woman,” Misty’s father says.
“The one with the little girl?
“Little girl.” Misty’s father’s eyes grow vacant, his voice lowers to something close to normal.
“They were good neighbors,” Anna says. “Quiet and kind. I was just wondering what happened to them?”
“I didn’t know them too well,” Anna says slowly, cautiously. Misty’s father seems stuck. “But they were kind, and I was wondering if the woman had a new job?”
“Job.” Misty’s father blinks. A switch turns on. “Yes, job. This is my job. Buy, build, sell, rent. I’m raising the rent here. Doubling it. This is a good building. It has good bones. And with the change in the neighborhood, I want to bring in a younger, hipper crowd. By this time next year, you won’t even recognize this neighborhood anymore. It will be as if someone waved a wand and poof! A new world.” Misty’s father waves his hand in the air. “I am the one with the wand.”
Anna can barely afford her rent now. She used to rely on her parents for help with bills, but because Angel wasn’t profiting, she knew whatever was earned at the restaurant would be used to keep it afloat. She does quick math, calculating when her lease will be up, and how much she would need to stay. In every equation, the answer is the same. She will have to move. Find another place.
“Miss Anna,” Misty’s father says. “You parents—they own Angel, don’t they?”
“I ate there a few times. Really excellent food. Your father is quite the cook. His sweet and sour chicken, mmm.” He rubs his stomach. “I made them a good offer, Miss Anna. The best offer I could. With that offer they could retire and live a comfortable life. Somewhere else. You should encourage them to take it. Where the restaurant is, I would put in another parking lot. We need more parking lots. Especially there. New businesses are flooding in. It’s going to look like a small town of small shops—very homey. People like homey. People like the idea that they are shopping from the comforts of their home. And the food will be homey, too. Like grandma makes. People love grandmas. You should tell your parents to think hard about their futures. Think hard for you. This benefits you, too. I’m sure you don’t make a lot on that school teacher’s paycheck, do you? Of course not. Encourage them, Miss Anna. It is for the best.”
Strangely, Anna finds herself in the hallway, outside the apartment, the sound of static entering her ears again. Before she can rebuke him, call him a slew of unpleasantries, Misty’s father closes the apartment door, loudly walking away.
Anna thinks about calling her parents, telling them to not take the offer, not from a man like that. She wants to tell them that he plans to bulldoze her parents’ dream and build a parking lot, next to the other two parking lots. She wants to say all of this, but she knows it will hurt them, more than it hurts her, especially her father. Instead, to divert her mind, and because there were so many absences in her class today, Anna decides to call parents to check in. This is part of her job, a way to make sure everything is okay. She picks up the phone and calls the number of the first student on her list, TJ, the fastest runner in the class.
The number you have dialed is no longer in service. Please check the number and try again.
Anna makes a note to send TJ home with a letter asking his parents to update their information. This happens often, parents changing phone services and forgetting to inform the school.
Anna dials the next number, Gina, who just lost her front tooth.
The number you have dialed is no longer in service…
Then she dials the next number, Ylce, who has thick black curls.
The number you have dialed is no longer in…
Then the next.
The number you have dialed is no longer…
And the next.
The number you have dialed is no…
When she dials Anon’s number, Anna expects the same thing. Did she miss a payment? This time someone answers.
“Hello?” Anna says. “Hello? I’m Miss Anna, Anon’s teacher.”
“Miss Anna,” a voice says. “Miss Anna.”
“Hello?” Anna says. “Anon, is that you?”
“Miss Anna.” The voice sounds far away.
Anna rises from the dining room chair. She puts one hand over her other ear to better focus on the voice. She is positive the voice belongs to Anon. She can hear his slight lisp, which she finds as endearing as his always-smile. “Anon, are you there?”
“Miss Anna.” The voice gets softer. There is too much static on the line and in her ears, interrupted by strange screeches, like bad feedback on a microphone. “Miss Anna.”
I am Miss Anna. This is my name. I answer to this five days a week. “Anon, I can barely hear you. Anon, are you there?”
“Miss Anna,” and more static.
“Anon,” Anna says. “What’s wrong?”
The line goes dead. Anna redials the number. Her palms are sweating, her breath caught in her throat.
The number you have dialed…
Anon lives on the south side of town. Anna knows the area well. She lived there for most of her childhood, but two years after Angel opened, her family moved to the other side of the city to be closer to the restaurant. Anon’s father works at a mini-mart connected to a gas station. He spends most of his days there, while his mother stays home with Anon’s twin sisters.
Unlike the other students who shared toys and dolls—or in Jack’s case, bugs—for show-and-tell, Anon brought pictures of his two baby sisters, swaddled tightly in blankets. Anna asked Anon to talk about the pictures, and he always began the same way. “This is a picture of my baby sisters, Asha and Ada.” Mat would interrupt and say what weird names the twins had. This never deterred Anon. He smiled and kept talking. “My sisters like to make spit bubbles. They like to eat smushy peas.” Mat would say something like, “They probably fart a lot, haha,” and Anna would tell him to hush, tell him to be kind. Anon kept going, kept smiling, as if there was no one else in the room but him and Miss Anna and the pictures of his sisters. “I love them a lot. They are my best friends. I’m their big brother. I protect them from anything, like monsters and zombies.” Mat would say the twins looked like burritos. He would say the babies’ faces were brown like dookie. Anna would tell Mat that what he said was unacceptable and to apologize to Anon immediately. Mat would do so begrudgingly, and often with a sneer.
It was after show-and-tell that Mat sat on Anon, proclaiming himself king. After school, as Anon was walking to the bus that would deliver him home, Mat took Anon’s backpack and found the photos of the twins. He then ripped them in half. You would think Anon would cry. Third graders were quick with tears, Anna knew, but Anon did nothing but smile. Anna watched the whole thing from her classroom window. Watched how Mat said something she couldn’t hear. Watched Anon smile. Watched frustration build in Mat’s big boy body because no matter what he did or said, Anon just smiled. This even frustrated Anna, who from her spot by the window, whispered, “Get him, Anon, fight back.” She understood this line of thought was not acceptable for a teacher, and Anna had to remind herself that she was Miss Anna, and this was her name, and she answered to this five days a week, and she should never wish violent retaliation of any kind, especially to her students. Then Mat, face bubbling with anger, pushed Anon on the ground and proceeded to sit on him. Anon did not struggle but kept smiling as if there wasn’t a big bully of a boy on top of him with his arms raised, saying, “I am king. I am king.”
Anna turns up the radio in the car. Two economists bicker about the state of the country. Something sits heavy in her stomach. Anna’s mind is on Anon’s voice, and the strange static over the phone. She hears it now, driving in the car. It hasn’t left her. She shakes her head and fidgets with her ear, but she cannot stop the sound. It is annoying, like the sound of a fly buzzing. The static gets louder and louder. She wonders if this is part of the sickness that is going around, sinuses clogging up ears and noses. Other than the static in her head, however, she feels perfectly fine.
The voices on the radio are barely understandable. She catches individual words that cut in and out. She turns on roads with businesses with more FOR SALE signs in the windows, past houses with more FOR SALE signs staked in yards. Anon lives a few blocks away, across the street from a park with broken swings and a rusty slide. Anna has never seen anyone play at the park. Anna has driven past Anon’s house before, a small brown-bricked ranch. His neighbors let the grass devour the yard, growing so high like a native prairie. Some of the yards contained dogs tied to trees, barking fiercely at anything that passed. It was a forsaken place, but Anna remembers Anon’s house being well-kept, and on the stoop of the front door were pots of blossoming flowers. From the only oak tree in the yard hung bird feeders that were always filled. Anon’s house was out of place on this side of town. Anon was a boy out of place.
Anna turns onto a small street and up ahead, at the end of the block, is Anon’s home. She prepares what she will say when she knocks on the door, that she is here to make sure everything is okay, and she has a book for Anon to read. But when she parks the car, she notices no house, only a vacant lot. The static in Anna’s ears fades. She catches the last bit of the radio show. “…no one would even notice—not the country, not the politicians who run it. No one.”
Anna looks around. She checks the address. Perhaps she is in the wrong place. There are two houses on either side of where Anon’s house should be. The houses are converted bungalows with wraparound porches. These are not the houses she remembers. They shine with new paint. The yards are manicured and trimmed, the flowerbeds mulched. Not a weed in sight.
A couple comes out of one of the houses. They are young and wear tight skinny jeans and black-rimmed glasses. They look nearly identical except one is a man and the other is a woman. They walk hand-in-hand.
“Excuse me,” Anna says, waving at the couple.
The couple stops, eyes wide and smiling.
“Excuse me,” Anna says again, “but do you know what happened to the house next door?”
The couple look at the vacant lot, one long stretch of green grass.
“House,” the couple says.
“House,” Anna says. “The people who lived there.”
“People,” the couple says, faces frozen in a smile.
“The family that lived here. The boy was my student. His name is Anon. His house was right here, and now,” Anna looks at the vacant lot, “and now, there’s nothing.”
Nothing is not right. There is no indication there has ever been a house. Even if the house were to have been taken down, there would be the remnants of the foundation that scarred the land or leftover brick, or the stump where the old oak tree used to be. Instead, perfectly cut grass.
“We love this place,” the couple says, their voices in unison. “Don’t you love this neighborhood? It is so cozy. So homey. We love cozy. We love homey.”
“That’s great,” Anna says, her voice becoming louder. It is the voice she uses when she has to reprimand a student, a voice to still wildness. “But I’m looking for a boy. Anon. He lived there. Right there.” Anna jabs her finger at the empty lot.
“Our home is beautiful,” the couple says. “Don’t you think? We are so lucky to find a place like this. More people will move in soon. Why wouldn’t they? This is a perfect place. We are so lucky.”
Anna backs away from the couple, who wave, their hands moving in sync. She rushes to the car when she hears a boy’s scream. She looks across the street at the park that is not the same park. The slide is an enormous rocket ship, and the monkey bars are shiny and yellow, and the rocking horses are no longer covered in rust. Anna takes this in, but in the distance, she sees two boys. One boy is sitting on the other. Anon. Mat is sitting on Anon again. She runs, screaming for Mat to get off. She runs as fast as she can, and when she gets close enough to the boys, she notices that it is indeed Mat, but the boy he sits on is not Anon. The boy he sits on looks like Jack, but without a face, featureless, becoming transparent, fading in and out, disappearing.
Mat is not laughing at all. He is not saying he is king. No. He is crying, his face red and wet and smeared with dirt and snot. He sits on a boy, a disappearing boy, trying to grab at the boy’s arms, but his hands go through them. He grabs for the boy’s hair, but his fingers grasp air. “No,” he says, his voice shrill. “Don’t go.” The boy is almost done vanishing.
Mat looks up and sees Anna. He screams, and the scream becomes static in Anna’s ears. So much static. She cannot hear anything else. Oppressive static. She clutches her head. Mat’s mouth is wide open. He no longer sits on anyone. He sits on the grass. He sits and cries and screams. His lips move. Anna cannot hear a thing. Static. Deafening. His lips move again, and through her squinted eyes, she knows what he is saying. Miss Anna, Miss Anna. Mat points at her. His face is so red and wet. She wants to go over to him. Hold him. The static in her head freezes her in place. She cannot move. She cannot do anything. Her body does not respond. She does not feel her body. Miss Anna, Miss Anna. She looks at her hands. They fade in and out. She looks at her feet. The same thing. And Mat, poor Mat, points and cries. Anna watches his mouth. It is all she can do. Miss Anna, Miss Anna.
Yes, she thinks. Yes, I am Miss Anna. That’s my name. I answer to this five days a week. I am Miss Anna. I am—.
Rumpus original art by Eva Azenaro Acero.