Everyone treats me way too nicely because of the things I think I’ve seen. They don’t want me to feel awkward but it makes me feel awkward. I last about half the morning in their company, trying to act more okay than I feel when the whole charade starts to get to me and I excuse myself. I decide to retrace my steps last night and I’m all of five minutes alone before Rhys shows. I want to tell him to go away, but what does it matter. He’ll always be here.
All of us will always be here.
This place is a coffin.
“So are you trying to scare us all out of the school?” Rhys asks. “Am I going to have to watch you to make sure you’re not going to fuck with us so you can find some dramatic way to leave?” I don’t say anything and he studies me. “If you’re not lying, it could be a concussion or something. Underneath that bandage, you’re missing a chunk of your forehead. It’s probably going to scar.”
My hand moves to the bandage. I push at it.
The sting is so sour I can almost taste it.
“Why are you out here?” I ask him.
“Why are you?” he asks back.
I’ve reached the end of the hall and I’m at the classroom door I saw the man standing at. I push it open. It’s Mr. Baxter’s room. My annoyance at Rhys disappears when I step inside. I move down an aisle of desks, touching my hands to them as I pass. The wrongness of it all creeps up on me. I don’t want to forget the function of this place.
I don’t want to forget how it used to be.
I reach Baxter’s desk and sit in his chair while Rhys stands in the center of the room, watching. There’s an agenda in front of me. Who uses things like these anymore when there are smartphones? I flip to a random page and see an appointment for the dentist, but right underneath that it says Madeline this morning: red nightgown and I am overcome by how personal these five words are. It reminds me of Lily telling me how our mom used to use the calendar on the bulletin board in the kitchen like a diary. Appointments noted, yes, but also little tidbits like girls fought—Sloane took Lily’s dolls! Lily said Mom saved them all and I asked Dad about them once, but he wouldn’t tell me where he kept them, or even if he did …
“Guilt,” Rhys says.
I look up. “What?”
“The man you saw. I bet it’s because you feel guilty about the guy outside.”
“I’m not being an asshole,” he says. “I’m just saying maybe that’s why you thought you saw someone. Like it’s … stress. Guilt.”
“But I don’t feel guilty about the man.” It’s a lie but I balance it with truth. “I’m jealous.”
“He’s turned, Sloane. He’s out there right now.”
Rhys is losing weight, I notice that now. His cheek-bones are so sharp, sharper than I remember them being before and he already has an angular face. We’re wasting away.
“You really think there’s nothing left for us?” he asks.
“I think there’s nothing left for me. I don’t think that for everyone else.”
“So what do they have that you don’t at this point?”
I press my lips together. I don’t want to talk about this anymore. I don’t want to talk about how everyone has something even if they don’t really have it anymore, that what they had makes them strong enough for this, to keep going.
“Guilt,” Rhys repeats.
“I didn’t see that man. It was—”
Shut up. Shut up.
“Who did you think it was?” His voice is quiet now like we’re in a church. There’s a determined look in his eyes. I know he’ll push this until he gets an answer, so I just tell him.
“My father. I thought—him.”
“I thought your father was dead.”
“I hope he is.” I swallow. “I wish it.”
I make him speechless. It’s a nicer feeling than it should be. He doesn’t get it. He doesn’t get how I could sit here and say something like that and mean it. But why would he. His home life was probably—not like mine. I bet it was perfect. I bet even the worst parts of it were better than mine. Before he can ask more, Cary steps into the room, breathless.
“I’ve been looking all over for you,” he says. “I just want to get this out of the way now. What I said yesterday—”
“No one’s going to say anything,” I tell him.
He relaxes. “Okay. Good.”
I flip Baxter’s agenda open and closed while they just stand there. Flip to the first page. Nick Baxter. Phone and cell phone numbers. Address. Nick Baxter.
“Oh,” I say.
“What?” Rhys asks.
The world breaks into a million pieces and comes back together just as quickly but it comes back together wrong. The picture is wrong. Upside down, awful. I stand slowly and move around Baxter’s desk, instinct guiding me. I feel like my brain is shutting down or waking up in a way it’s never been awake before. I move along the back of the room and come to the closet. I open the door and everything stops. Everything. Rhys and Cary get so quiet, I’m afraid they disappeared or they were never here at all and I think I made this moment happen, I willed this man into existence.
He’s curled up on the floor, asleep. He’s not even a ghost of the person he used to be. There is nothing of our teacher left in him. That steady, solid frame that stood over all of us and kept us quiet has now shrunk in on itself, somehow. His cheeks are hollow and his face is so pale that if he wasn’t breathing, I’d think he was dead. He’s wearing a suit. A dress shirt, ripped and covered in blood and muck. He’s alive. Seeing someone else in this school, alive, is almost too much. I’m afraid of it. I’m afraid of this ravaged man.
“Get the gun, Sloane,” Rhys says.
I’m too shocked to understand what he’s saying.
“The gun—get it!”
That’s when I notice the handgun resting in Baxter’s lap. It’s angled weirdly toward me, sends my heart into a furious rhythm. I reach forward slowly. My fingers get way too close to my English teacher’s crotch in the process and that alone makes my stomach turn. Mr. Baxter’s eyes flicker. I scramble back with the gun in my hands and Rhys is behind me, ripping it from my grasp, which makes me realize all the things I can do with a gun.
“Holy shit,” Rhys says.
I’m so overcome with the urge to say I told you so. I told you someone was in here. Then my brain spazzes out. Someone else is in here. Someone else got in.
Rhys and Cary stare at this lump of a human being—another human being in this school with us, an adult—and have no idea what to do.
Cary turns to us. “How did he get in?” Before either of us can answer, he strides forward and kicks Baxter, who is slowly waking up, in the legs.
“Cary—” Rhys reaches for him, but it’s too late.
Baxter moans. Cary nudges him with his foot again and I move farther away because I don’t want to be close to this. I want to be as far from it as I can.
“Sloane, get back here,” Rhys says.
The gun. Rhys has the gun. We have a gun. No, Baxter has a gun. It’s Baxter’s gun. This is Baxter’s classroom. Is this Baxter’s school? Does he have more right to it than we do because he works here? Worked here? I can’t get my brain to stop from wondering frantically because it doesn’t know what matters anymore, what is the most important thing. The most important thing: Baxter is alive. He’s in this school and he’s alive.
“Baxter,” Cary says, and then he corrects himself. “Mr. Baxter—”
Baxter is awake now, staring at us with empty eyes. Fleeting recognition passes through them. He opens his mouth to speak but Cary cuts him off.
“How did you get in here? You have to tell us how you got in—”
“You found me,” Baxter says. Just listening to the words scrape through his mouth makes me thirsty. “I wondered when you’d find me…”
“Mr. Baxter, how did you get in here?”
“My gun—where is my gun? Which one of you took it?”
Rhys hides the gun behind his back. Cary crouches down directly in front of Baxter and takes his face in his hands. “Listen to me: How. Did. You. Get. In. Here?”
Baxter stares at Cary for a long time.
“I don’t know,” he says, and then his body goes slack. Cary steps back, letting the man slump into nothing. The dull sound of his breathing fills the room.
Baxter is weak.
While we’ve been making ourselves comfortable in here, he’s been running and starving, seeking shelter in the least obvious places he can find. Surviving, he says, and the word is bitter out of his mouth. We give him food. He eats canned peaches and throws them up. He drinks a bottle of water and throws it up too. We find antacids in the nurse’s office and he’s able to keep a bit of food and water down after that. He tells us he was on his “last leg” before he got here. His eyes are dull, cloudy and he can’t hold on to a thought long enough to say anything useful. Every time he speaks, there’s something so sad about the way his voice sounds. I can’t believe there was a time he stood in front of a classroom and taught us.
This man is Mr. Baxter but he’s not Mr. Baxter anymore.
“The barricades are incredible.” He looks at us, something akin to pride in his eyes. “An incredible testament … to teenage ingenuity. Look at how safe we are.”
“We’re not safe,” Cary says. This will be the thousandth time he tries to direct Baxter’s attention to the most important situation at hand. “If you got in, those things outside can too.”
“I know, Mr. Chen. I know that—”
“Then you know it’s life and death. We need to know how you got in.”
Baxter closes his eyes and then opens them. “I can’t remember…”