By Leslie Howard
Annie waited behind an elderly gentleman in a well tailored three-piece suit for her turn to disembark the ancient Greyhound bus, which had just pulled into the Third Street station. She impatiently shifted her grandmother’s worn leather suitcase to her right hand so that she could better grip the railing as she stepped off of the bus and into her new life. The man seemed to take forever, and when, finally, Annie took that first step out into the fresh air after ten hours of nearly continuous riding, she moved too quickly, plunging her foot ankle deep into the muddy sludge of a backed-up gutter. Cold, dirty water seeped into her shoe, saturating her stocking and creating a sucking sound as she walked. Disgusted, she shook her foot, sending her shoe flying into the bushes on the other side of the sidewalk. Hobbling to retrieve it, she nearly crashed into a boy on a motorized scooter who sailed past, as oblivious to the bus passengers as Annie was to him.
“A great way to start my next big adventure,” she muttered to herself. “Pull yourself together, girl.” She retrieved the wayward shoe, shoved it back onto her foot, and headed inside to ask directions from a young woman with mousy brown hair and too much make-up who was riffling through a file cabinet behind a formica counter. The contrast between the “true red” lipstick she wore and the girl’s pale, freckled skin made her look rather like the heroine in the vampire movie that had been playing at the theater back home all winter.
“Hello. Can you tell me the way to High Street?” Annie asked. The girl jumped, lost her balance, and grabbed hold of the filing cabinet to steady herself.
"Sorry. I didn't hear you come in. She shifted uncomfortably from one foot to another. Glancing downward Annie noted the three inch leopard print shoes adorning the girl's feet. Deep red toenails embellished with stars peeked through the open toes. Poor thing. She’s probably been on her feet all day in those horrid things, thought Annie.
The girl approached the counter and leaned over , stretching to point the way, revealing very little cleavage in the process, though her purple tee shirt was cut into a deep vee in front.
“Through those doors, and turn left. Go two blocks up, then turn right. That’s High Street,” she said, popping her gum as she spoke..
Annie thanked her, rounded the corner, and began trudging up the hill in the indicated direction. Blinking in the bright sunlight, she continued two blocks as instructed, then turned right onto High Street. California at this time of year was certainly sunnier than back home in Ohio, where April was just an extension of winter. Here it was almost hot outside, and flowers were beginning to push their way up through the already soft, unfrozen soil.
Her wet shoe squeaking as she walked, she progressed up High Street, passing a white church with a bona fide steeple, stained glass windows, and heavy wooden doors. The town seemed to have a certain old-fashioned charm to it, just as she had hoped when she found it on her Internet search of places offering teaching positions far from home. She had wanted someplace new and different in which to begin her career as a science teacher, but not so very different that she didn’t know how to fit in. Her hometown was old-fashioned, and this nod of nostalgia: the vintage buildings, the historical plaques, and the heritage trees seemed to fit the bill. Annie nodded in satisfaction. ...
Annie rounded up some soft rags from the cleaning closet and set out to make a bed for the sleepy kitten. Clearing out a dresser drawer, she lined the bottom with the rags, and molded a few of them into a donut shape to cradle the kitten. She knew that even if the kitten awakened during the night, the sides of the dresser drawer were too steep for her tiny legs to crawl out. She gently set her into the center of the little nest, then put on her own pajamas, brushed her teeth, and crawled into bed.
“Good night, little one,” she whispered softly. “Tomorrow we will try to find your home.”
Leaning back against her pillow, Annie contemplated the day. It had been full of surprises, and she realized that she had not felt this happy in ages. When she turned off the antique brass lamp on her bed stand, she fell asleep almost instantly. That is why she could not believe it when, at 3 a.m., she was awakened by the familiar nightmare once again. The flashes of light; her father’s stricken face. Mommy, on the ground, so still. The wail of sirens, then men running with a gurney between them. Grandma coming over, weeping, holding her tightly against her breast. Daddy leaving with the policemen.
Annie sat up in bed, covered with sweat, and she was startled to find that tears were streaming down her face. Not now, she thought, desperately. Not when things are starting to be so good. I thought I had left all of this behind me. She switched on the bedside lamp, then remembered the kitten and got out of bed to check on her. The kitten blinked up, her tiny eyes bothered by the sudden light invading the darkness. Annie picked up the furry bundle and cuddled her close for comfort, then crossed to the rocking chair and settled into it, rocking gently. As she moved rhythmically back and forth, back and forth she contemplated the last few days. What had set off these bad dreams? She had been free from them since she moved here, but this was the second time in a week that she had been disturbed by their sudden return. Could it be that the problem with Brian and his uncle had opened up a long-sealed cache of horrific memories? Or was it that finally opening her heart to someone enough to disclose the terrible events of that day had opened the floodgate of emotion that she had so stolidly guarded for all of these years? ...
As soon as Annie saw Brian in class the next day she knew that he had been crying. His red-rimmed eyes and wan complexion told her that he had had a hard night the night before, as had she. Once again she had awakened to the tormenting replay of the worst day of her life. She shook off the thought, and walked to Brian’s desk. Talking softly, so that the other students would not overhear, she gently laid her hand on his shoulder. “Brian. How are you?”
“Would you like to talk about it? I can stay in at lunchtime and we can eat together while you tell me what’s on your mind.”
“No, that’s okay. You wouldn’t understand.”
“I think you’d be surprised at how much I understand. Please let me try to help you.”
“I don’t think so. Thanks.” He pulled the hood of his sweatshirt over his thin face and turned away.
Annie was disappointed and frustrated. Here was a boy whose problems rivaled her own, and she didn’t know how to reach him. She returned to circulating between the lab groups, checking their measurements and calculations, and making sure that they were using proper safety procedures. From time to time she glanced at Brian, and noticed that he never left his desk to join his group. “He’s just slipping away in despair.” She thought. I’ve got to find a way to reach him.” ...