"I don't know. Some school. Listen, you have to tell my parents to stop the police! I don't want them killed."
"Lev, slow down. Are you all right?"
"They kidnapped me—but they didn't hurt me, so I don't want them hurt. Tell my father to call off the police!"
"I don't know what you're talking about. We never told the police."
Lev is not expecting to hear this. "You never . . . what?"
"Your parents were going to. They were going to make a whole big deal about it—but I convinced them not to. I convinced them that your being kidnapped was somehow God's will."
Lev starts shaking his head like he can shake the thought away. "But . . . but why would you do that?"
Now Pastor Dan starts to sound desperate. "Lev, listen to me. Listen to me carefully. No one else knows that you're gone. As far as anyone knows, you've been tithed, and people don't ask questions about children who are tithed. Do you understand what I'm telling you?"
"But... I want to be tithed. I need to be. You have to call my parents and tell them. You have to get me to harvest camp."
Now Pastor Dan gets angry. "Don't make me do that! Please, don't make me do that!" It's as if he's fighting a battle, but somehow it's not Lev he's battling. This is so far from Lev's image of Pastor Dan, he can't believe it's the same person he's known all these years. It's like an impostor has stolen the Pastor's voice, but none of his convictions.
"Don't you see, Lev? You can save yourself. You can be anyone you want to be now."
And all at once the truth comes to Lev. Pastor Dan wasn't telling him to run away from the kidnapper that day—he was telling Lev to run away from him. From his parents. From his tithing. After all of his sermons and lectures, after all that talk year after year about Lev's holy duty, it's all been a sham. Lev was born to be tithed—and the man who convinced him this was a glorious and honorable fate doesn't believe it.
"Lev? Lev, are you there?"
He's there, but he doesn't want to be. He doesn't want to answer this man who led him to a cliff only to turn away at the last minute. Now Lev's emotions spin like a wheel of fortune. One moment he's furious, the next, relieved. One instant he's filled with terror so extreme, he can smell it like acid in his nostrils, and the next, there's a spike of joy, like what he used to feel when he swung away and heard the crack of his bat against a ball. He is that ball now, soaring away. His life has been like a ballpark, hasn't it? All lines, structure, and rules, never changing. But now he's been hit over the wall into unknown territory.
"Lev?" says Pastor Dan. "You're scaring me. Talk to me."
Lev takes a slow, deep breath, then says, "Good-bye, sir." Then he hangs up without another word.
Lev sees police cars arrive outside. Connor and Risa will soon be caught, if they haven't been caught already. The nurse is no longer standing at the door—she's chiding the principal for how he's handling this situation. "Why didn't you call the poor boy's parents? Why haven't you put the school in lock-down?"
Lev knows what he has to do. It's something wrong. It's something bad. But suddenly he doesn't care. He slips out of the office right behind the nurse's and principal's backs, and goes out into the hallway. It only takes a second to find what he's looking for. He reaches for the little box on the wall.
I am lost in every possible way.
Then, feeling the coldness of the steel against his fingertips, he pulls the fire alarm.
The fire alarm goes off during the teacher's prep period, and she silently curses the powers that be for their awful timing. Perhaps, she thinks, if she can just stay in her empty classroom until the false alarm—and it's always a false alarm—is dealt with. But then, what kind of example would she be setting if students passing by looked in to see her sitting there.
As she leaves the room, the hallways are already filling with students. Teachers try their best to keep them organized, but this is a high school; the organized lines of elementary school fire drills are long gone, having been replaced by the brazen hormonal zigzags of kids whose bodies are too big for their own good.
Then she sees something strange. Something troubling.
There are two policemen by the front office—they actually seem intimidated by the mob of kids flowing past them and out the front doors of the school. But why policemen? Why not firemen? And how could they have gotten here so quickly? They couldn't have—they must have been called before the alarm went off. But why?
The last time there were policemen in the school, someone called in a clapper threat. The school was evacuated, and no one knew why until after the fact. Turns out, there was no clapper—the school was never in danger of being blown up. It was just some kid pulling a practical joke. Still, clapper threats are always taken seriously, because you never know when the threat might be real.
"Please, no pushing!" she says to a student who bumps her elbow. "I'm sure we'll all make it outside." Good thing she didn't take her coffee.
"Sorry, Ms. Steinberg."
As she passes one of the science labs, she notices the door ajar. Just to be thorough, she peeks in to make sure there are no stragglers, or kids trying to avoid the mass exodus. The stone-top tables are bare and the chairs are all in place. No one had been in the lab this period. She reaches to pull the door closed, more out of habit than anything else, when she hears a sound that is wholly out of place in the room.
A baby's cry.
At first she thinks it might be coming from the student mother nursery, but the nursery is way down the hall. This cry definitely came from the lab. She hears the cry again, only this time it sounds oddly muffled, and angrier. She knows that sound. Someone's trying to cover the baby's mouth to keep it from crying. These teen mothers always do that when they have their babies where they don't belong. They never seem to realize it only makes the baby cry louder.
"Party's over," she calls out. "C'mon, you and your baby have to leave with everyone else."
But they don't come out. There's that muffled cry again, followed by some intense whispering that she can't quite make out. Annoyed, she steps into the lab and storms down the center aisle looking left and right until she finds them crouched behind one of the lab tables. It's not just a girl and a baby; there's a boy there too. There's a look of desperation about them. The boy looks as if he might bolt, but the girl grabs him firmly with her free hand. It keeps him in place. The baby wails.
The teacher might not know every name in school, but she's fairly certain she knows even' face—and she certainly knows all the student mothers. This isn't one of them, and the boy is completely unfamiliar too.
The girl looks at her, eyes pleading. Too frightened to speak, she just shakes her head. It's the boy who speaks.
"If you turn us in, we'll die."
At the thought, the girl holds the baby closer to her. Its cries lessen, but don't go away entirely. Clearly these are the ones the police are looking for, for reasons she can only guess at.
"Please . . . ," says the boy.
Please what? the teacher thinks. Please break the law? Please put myself and the school at risk? But, no, that's not it at all. What he's really saying is: Please be a human being. With a life so full of rules and regiments, it's so easy to forget that's what they are. She knows—she sees—how often compassion takes a back seat to expediency.
Then a voice from behind her: "Hannah?"
She turns to see another teacher looking in from the door. He's a bit disheveled, having fought the raging rapids of kids still funneling out of the school. He obviously hears the baby's cries—how could he not?
"Is everything all right?" he asks.
"Yeah," says Hannah, with more calm in her voice than she actually feels. "I'm taking care of it."
The other teacher nods and leaves, probably glad not to share the burden of whatever this crying baby situation is.
Hannah now knows what the situation is, however—or at least she suspects. Kids only have this kind of desperation in their eyes when they're going to be unwound.
She holds out her hand to the frightened kids. "Come with me." The kids are hesitant, so she says, "If they're looking for you, they'll find you once the building is empty. You can't expect to hide here. If you want to get out, you have to leave with everyone else. C'mon, I'll help you."
Finally, they rise from behind the lab table, and she breathes a sigh of relief. She can tell they still don't trust her— but then, why should they? Unwinds exist in the constant shadow of betrayal. Well, they don't need to trust her now, they just need to go with her. In this case, necessity is the mother of compliance, and that's just fine.
"Don't tell me your names," she says to them. "Don't tell me anything, so if they question me afterward, I won't be lying when I say I don't know."
There are still crowds of kids pushing past in the hall, heading toward the nearest exit. She steps out of the room, making sure the two kids and their baby are right behind her. She will help them. Whoever they are, she will do her best to get them to safety. What kind of example would she be setting if she didn't?
Police down the hall! Police at the exits! Risa knows this is Lev's doing. He didn't just run away, he turned them in. This teacher says she's helping them, but what if she's not? What if she's just leading them to the police?
Don't think about that now! Keep your eyes on the baby.
Policemen know panic when they see it. But if her eyes are turned to the baby, her panic might be read as concern for the baby's tears.
"If I ever see Lev again," says Connor, "I'll tear him to pieces."
"Shh," says the teacher, leading them along with the crowd to the exit.
Risa can't blame Connor for his anger. She blames herself for not seeing through Lev's sham. How could she have been so naive to think he was truly on their side?
"We should have let the little creep be unwound," grumbles Connor.
"Shut up," says Risa. "Let's just get out of this."
As they near the door, another policeman comes into view standing just outside.
"Give me the baby," the teacher orders, and Risa does as she's told. She doesn't yet realize why the woman asked for the baby, but it doesn't matter. It's wonderful to have someone leading the way who seems to know what they're doing. Perhaps this woman isn't the enemy after all. Perhaps she truly will get them through this.
"Let me go ahead," the teacher says. "The two of you separate, and just walk out with the rest of the kids."
Without the baby to look at, Risa knows she can't hide the panic in her eyes, but suddenly she realizes that it might not matter—and now she understands why the woman took the baby. Yes, Lev turned them in. But if they're lucky, these local police may only have a description of them to go by: a scruffy-haired boy and a dark-haired girl with a baby. Take away the baby, and that could be half the kids in this school.
The teacher—Hannah— passes the policeman a few yards ahead of them, and he gives her only a momentary glance. But then he looks toward Risa, and his eyes lock on her. Risa knows she's just given herself away. Should she turn and race back into the school? Where's Connor now? Is he behind her, in front of her? She has no idea. She's completely alone.
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