When Sophie entered the house and dropped her outer things in the vestibule, the smell of smoke was faint, but present, as if a candle had burned down to the wick and now smoldered somewhere. “Mother!” she cried, racing through the living room for the kitchen, where the smell seemed strongest.
“In here, dear.”
Mrs. Newcomb was seated at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and Sophie’s mother stood before the stove, skewering a piece of paper. The page was stuck through with one of the little sticks her mother kept for making kebobs. The flames licked at the page. It curled and blackened, a paper marshmallow.
“What are you doing?” Sophie asked.
Her mother waved the disintegrating page. “Oh, it’s just a flyer,” she said. “They’re collecting signatures, asking us to pull you out of your Mr.Everett’s class.”
“Why?” Sophie asked.
Her mother turned her attention back to the stove and blithely continued to roast the paper.
“To show solidarity, dear,” Mrs. Newcomb answered. “They want to present a united front. They’re calling it Keep Togetherness Together! I’m going to go home and burn mine too.”
“Good for you, Sadie.” Her mother turned off the burner. She touched the blackened end of the skewer before tossing it into the sink. It fell apart at its tip and her finger was left smudged with ash. “How many today, Sophie?”
“Nine,” she answered. “Including me.” For the past two weeks the number of her classmates had dwindled, fewer and fewer showing up each day. Each day more and more parents were choosing to keep their children at home rather than have them remain under Mr. Everett’s tutelage.
Mrs. Newcomb set her coffee mug down and rose from the table. “My Seth will be in class tomorrow,” she said, eyeing Sophie appraisingly. “Just like it was any other day.”
Sophie fidgeted under the buxom woman’s gaze. Mrs. Newcomb always looked at her this way now. Her son Seth had been chosen for Sophie, but the two were many years away from being joined.
“So will my Sophie,” her mother said. “She understands that this is not just about Mr. Everett. It’s bigger than that. Sometimes you’ve got to take a stand. Right, Sophie?”
“Right,” Sophie said—though really—she had no idea.
The next morning, there were only seven students in attendance. They sat, enshrouded in semi-darkness, waiting to see what their teacher would do next. Mr. Everett stood before them, wavering, his shadow seeming to melt. Sophie could barely see him through the darkness. Five minutes before, she and the others had been sitting at their desks and learning about waves. Mr. Everett had dropped a pebble into the glass tank of water on his desk and the class had watched as the pebble caused a series of tiny waves. He had told them that the waves were caused by the surface of the water being subjected to disturbance and then he’d zoned out right in front of them. He’d stood there for a time, as if frozen to the spot between desk and chalkboard and then—without warning—he’d jogged to the light switch by the door and turned out all of the lights. Now Sophie and her classmates sat in the dark, pretending to be brave in the face of their teacher’s unpredictable behavior.
Everything familiar became disorienting in the dark. Sophie could not see the town’s flag standing tall in the corner between chalkboard and window. Normally, she could take comfort in its presence, in its unique pattern of orange, green, and purple—it was made using only secondary colors— but in the dark, she was without comfort. She didn’t know how the rest of the class was faring. The other kids were scattered around the room, lost to her in a sea of darkness. In keeping with her pledge, Mrs. Newcomb had sent Seth to school that day. He’d been sitting in his usual spot at the desk to the right of Sophie’s that morning, but Sophie had asked him to move, believing that if they all sat spread out it would make the classroom appear more full. It had been her way of doing her part. Now that she sat trembling in the dark for long lonely minutes, wishing Seth was seated beside her, she regretted her ingenuity.
If her mother were here she would fear neither the darkness nor Mr. Everett. Her mother would snap the teacher out of it. “Be nice to him,” her mother had said that morning before sending Sophie off to school. “Remember he needs your support, not your fear.”
Sophie pushed her seat back, gathering courage from the sound of the metal legs scraping across the floor. If she looked hard enough, she could make out silhouettes in the dark. Like the big one near where she thought the classroom door should be. Surely that one was Mr. Everett, slumped near the light switch. Even from where she stood, Sophie could make out the drooping of his shoulders and the hang of his head. She made her way slowly, touching everything along the way—sometimes the edge of a desk, sometimes a shoulder or the top of a head—until she was at the front of the classroom and Mr. Everett was in her reach. He was whispering something. It sounded like “Julie, God help me.” Sophie couldn’t remember if Julie was his wife or his daughter. She wasn’t supposed to know what had caused Mr. Everett’s new and erratic behavior, but like all of the other children who kept silent in the presence of adults, she drank everything in. All of her classmates knew that Mr. Everett’s wife had left him, taking their daughter with her. Though Sophie knew this, neither she nor her classmates nor anyone else in the town of Togetherness knew what had prompted Mrs. Everett’s drastic measure. Strangely comforted by his whispering, Sophie made her way more securely through the dark. She wondered if he’d been whispering the entire time she’d been approaching. If she’d remained in her seat, she’d never have heard him. Standing there in the dark beside Mr. Everett had a soothing effect upon Sophie. His whisper was a private thing between the two of them, something meant only for her ears. Knowing her mother would want it this way, Sophie grasped in the darkness and took hold of the teacher’s hand. Keeping her voice whisper soft, she asked, “Won’t you come home with me for dinner?”
Seated at the head of the dinner table, Mr. Everett ate everything Sophie’s mother placed before him and complimented the meal profusely. Sophie didn’t tell her mother what happened earlier that day, but she watched Mr. Everett closely, waiting to see if the teacher would do or say something peculiar. The teacher seemed normal enough, even happy to have been invited, though there were several times when he looked at Sophie as if he were about to speak, his mouth opening and closing like a fish’s, without emitting any sound.
To Sophie’s mother he complained, “Everyone treats me like a leper. No one will come near me.”
“We’re not like that,” her mother assured him.
“There are so few left in my class now. I’ve barely got a handful.”
“That just means Sophie can have more individual attention,” her mother said.
He thanked her mother for allowing Sophie to remain in his class.
“They’re waging a war against me, you know. They’re trying to shut me down,” he said. “No one trusts me anymore.”
Her mother looked at her and tapped the table twice, a signal for Sophie to clear the dishes. Once Sophie got up and removed the plates, her mother turned her chair at an angle, crossed her legs and opened a pack of cigarettes. Smoking, she said, “If we’re not careful, we’ll soon be like the folks on the outside.”
Sophie perked up at this. Rarely did her mother ever mention the outside world, a place from which the townsfolk had fought to separate themselves, a place Sophie scarcely thought of. Like any other educable child in Togetherness, Sophie knew the story of the town’s founding as well as she knew her prayers. Twenty years ago—ten years before she was born— one hundred families of like-minded interests and values had gathered together and decided to leave the outside world behind. Grieved and appalled by the way most of the people they’d encountered kept to themselves, coming together only for selfish and temporary reasons, the one hundred families had pooled their resources to obtain a land grant, a charter and a ninety-nine year lease to forge an existence far away from the rest of the world. Rebelling against what they saw as a depraved way of life, the one hundred families fled it, striking out on their own, seeking not to tell the rest of the world how to live, but only to free themselves from the rest of the world. Like those who called upon the dictates of their religious faith to recuse themselves from military service or jury duty, the one hundred founder families had looked to the dictates of their spirits and recused themselves from the world. They had not seceded so much as they had claimed moral asylum. Collectively, they remitted their taxes to the government for the right to be left alone and govern themselves according to their own best interests. Seeking only a peaceful existence, wanting merely to be left alone to live as best they saw fit, they’d built the town from scratch. Upon the acres of land they’d purchased, they’d built not only homes and industries, but a way of life. They’d planted their values and beliefs into the soil and up had sprung Togetherness, a town where relationships were not only celebrated and valued, but were a requirement for citizenship.
From where Sophie stood, there was no indication that the outside world truly existed. For all she knew, Togetherness was the only town in the world. There were no visitors, no strangers, no nothing to indicate that anything on the outside mattered. But her father had died defending the town from the outsiders, so maybe that was all the proof she needed. And now too, there was Mrs. Everett who had slipped away and into that world of which Sophie knew so little. “Is it really as bad as everyone says?” Sophie asked.
Mr. Everett and her mother shared a look just then and the conversation took a turn. They began to talk about different people in town, swapping stories and gossip like old friends. Neither of them mentioned the world on the outside or “the incident” that was responsible for Mr. Everett’s current fall from grace. But Sophie knew as much about it as everyone else; their enclave of a town was too small to harbor secrets. A man without a family, a man who had been deserted, abandoned, left by his spouse, Mr. Everett was now an anomaly in their small relationship-driven town. Only adult couples who had been joined to partners for a minimum of eight years could live permanently in Togetherness. The couples signed contracts giving their pledges to remain joined together and to have their children joined to others immediately upon adulthood. Now that Mr. Everett was unjoined, the townsfolk worried that keeping him in the classroom would improperly influence the children who were his students and cause a wave of immoral behavior. The members of the town could proudly boast that there had been no divorces since the town’s chartering and inception twenty years ago. But, now, thanks to Mr. Everett, there was a separation on the town’s books, “the incident” as it was now being called. Nothing like Mr. Everett had ever happened before.
Dinner over, Mr. Everett rose from the table and bowed deep from the waist like a gallant. “I really appreciate this,” he said. “Really, I do.” He looked down at Sophie as he said it and she knew then that she had been right to keep the secret from early in the day, right not to tell her mother what Mr. Everett had done.
“You’re more than welcome to eat with us any night. Come again tomorrow,” her mother said. “Unless you prefer to be alone.”
“No one prefers that,” he said.
Her mother walked Mr. Everett to the door and helped him into his coat. He shrugged into it and turned to face her. Holding her mother’s arms lightly, he then leaned in to kiss her. It was a perfect solution, Sophie thought. Neither of them had anybody anymore. It would be a sensible pairing. But Sophie doubted it would ever happen with her dead father standing in the way. Though her mother had been alone for some time, she’d never ceased to speak of Sophie’s father or let the memory of him fade.
Once released, her mother went to the door and held it open for Mr. Everett. There was neither passion nor interest in her eyes when she told the teacher, “I wish you hadn’t done that.”
Mr. Everett never came home directly with Sophie after the first night. He always arrived some two hours afterwards looking freshly showered and changed. When asked about it, Sophie’s mother said it was better this way, not only because it gave Mr. Everett something to look forward to while he decompressed from the day, but also because it gave them a chance to prepare for his coming. Sophie didn’t know what needed preparing, but each day before Mr. Everett’s visit, her mother found some small task for her.
On the fourth night her mother said, “Here Sophie, come help me tidy up.” She beckoned Sophie into the living room and set her to plumping the sofa pillows.
After taking a pillow from the couch and punching it in its middle as she’d been taught, Sophie asked, “How come we’re on Mr. Everett’s side?” The question had been burning in her ever since the first students started disappearing and her mother had declared that she would not allow Sophie to be one of them. Sophie was glad that her mother wasn’t boycotting Mr. Everett, but she didn’t understand why she was taking such a staunch stand against the rest of the townspeople.
“To show solidarity,” her mother said.
“But the other day Mrs. Newcomb said that the petition was for solidarity.”
“That’s one version of it,” her mother said. She took a small hand vacuum and buzzed it along the cushions. “Mr. Everett is one of the original members of this town and we owe him our reverence and respect. Showing solidarity with him is a way of upholding the principles we believe in Sophie, principles that your father died fighting for.”
Though Togetherness was a firmly established and legally recognized town, its dwellers received occasional challenges from outsiders and Sophie’s father had died in a skirmish four years ago defending their town and its way of life. She understood now why her mother was so adamant. Somehow, this thing with Mr. Everett was all about Sophie’s dead father, though Sophie couldn’t see how it was. She hung her head. In the excitement of the past few weeks, she’d forgotten her father’s memory. She was supposed to say a prayer for him every night, but she had recently let many nights go by wherein she did not.
“Pray, Sophie that you never end up alone and have to go through what Mr. Everett is going through.” Sophie thought her mother meant the ostracizing, but the look in her eyes said she meant something else entirely. “Trust me, you wouldn’t want to know the feeling.”
When Sophie still said nothing, her mother grew impatient. She set the hand vacuum down in the middle of the seat cushion and crossed her arms in front of her. “You do like Mr. Everett don’t you?”
Sophie thought back to the very first day of class. After introducing himself and making everyone go round with an icebreaker, Mr. Everett had promised that he would never raise his voice to any student, never force anyone to stand and recite, never use the ruler or the paddle and never make anyone stand in the corner. And he hadn’t. He had kept his word. Yes, Sophie liked him immensely. “He’s pretty nice,” she said.
The bell rang.
“Good,” her mother said. “Because he’s here.”
But it wasn’t Mr. Everett at the door after all. It was Mrs. Newcomb.
She bustled in and peered around. “Where is he?”
“Not yet Sadie,” Sophie’s mother said.
“Well, how am I going to show the fellow my support if he doesn’t even show up?”
“He will,” Sophie’s mother soothed. “You’re early.”
Once Mr. Everett arrived, the adults sat down to the table that Sophie had helped to set. Dinner was a quiet affair, devoid of the usual desultory conversation Sophie had come to expect from her teacher. The appearance of Mrs. Newcomb at the dinner table seemed to render Mr. Everett shy. Mrs. Newcomb watched Mr. Everett alertly, as if waiting for him to speak, but the teacher kept his eyes on his plate, unconscious of her scrutiny. The meal ran its course in silence. Oblivious to the reticence of the adults, Sophie ate with the heartiness of a hungry young girl.
After dinner, her mother led their guests to the living room while Sophie prepared the drinks.
“Have a seat,” Sophie’s mother said. “Make yourself comfortable.”
Mrs. Newcomb seated herself immediately and patted the seat on the couch beside her for Mr. Everett to join her.
Sophie brought in coffee and tea. As soon as she set the drinks on the table, the three adults reached for them. Though Mrs. Newcomb and her mother had taken coffee, Sophie noticed that Mr. Everett took tea. Sophie took a cup of tea for herself as well.
“Have you heard anything since?” Mrs. Newcomb asked. It had been almost three weeks since Mrs. Everett had disappeared.
The teacher’s eyes watered. “No,” Mr. Everett said, blowing the word into the cup. Sophie watched it whispering it across the surface of his hot tea, disturbing the calm of the piping hot water and the calm of the adults seated on either side of him.
Before Mrs. Newcomb could follow up, Sophie’s mother sent her a quelling look. “Perhaps we should talk of more delightful things.”
“Of course,” Mrs. Newcomb said, duly chastised. She looked at Sophie and brightened. “My Seth is at home completing his science homework. Seth says he’s learning so much in class now.” With every word spoken, Mrs. Newcomb’s voice rose higher. “Most likely, it’s because he’s getting so much more personalized attention now.” Mrs. Newcomb sat back against the seat cushions and gave Sophie and her mother an exaggerated conspiratorial wink.
“Sophie, is your homework all done?” her mother asked.
“Yes,” Sophie said. She’d completed her homework during the day. Mr. Everett had recently instituted a new thing called “Reflection Time” where no talking was allowed. Instead, everyone was to sit quietly and make no disturbing noises. Sophie’s best girlfriend Kristen had not shown up for the past two days, and since Sophie had no one with whom she could pass notes, she used Reflection Time to complete the homework that she knew Mr. Everett would never grade. During Reflection Time, Mr. Everett sat at his desk with the previous day’s homework in front of him, looking down at the slim stack without seeming to really see it. They were still on waves and just that day Sophie had learned about the great and destructive tsunami wave. But there had been no demonstration like before. Though the earth science lessons still continued, Mr. Everett no longer used props to make the learning come alive. The surface of the water in the tank on his desk remained calm and undisturbed.
Mr. Everett looked up from his tea with troubled eyes. He said “I fear for her. She’s out there somewhere and she’s got my little girl with her.”
“What’s out there?” Sophie asked.
“You wouldn’t want to know,” he said. The hands which held the cup trembled.
“I would,” Sophie insisted.
“It’s horrible! So horrible. What a world! No satisfaction. No contentment. Children didn’t want to grow up to be anything other than famous. No one spoke to anyone. People spent all of their time playing with little gadgets. We lost our sense of each other, of why we were here in the first place. There was no common good, nothing to work for, to strive for. Nothing to protect or preserve. It was just an empty world. We were all becoming hollow.”
“You mean shallow?” Sophie asked.
“Hollow,” he said. “I know what I mean. You could change anything out there. If you didn’t like something about yourself, you could just replace it. You don’t like your face? You could go and get a new face. New hair. New eye color. New anything. Empty on the inside. Hollow. We all originally came together because the world outside had degenerated from a tolerable place into a terrible place. Men were walking into movie theatres and opening fire on moviegoers, killing and wounding dozens upon dozens of people at a time. Children were being placed in washing machines for kicks. Teenage boys were beaten and killed for wearing the hoods of their sweatshirts pulled over their head. And even when there was no physical violence, there was still all of the visual violence.”
Sophie was losing the thread of the conversation. “Visual violence?”
Mrs. Newcomb explained, “It assaulted the eyes. It was everywhere you turned. Little girls like you couldn’t turn on a television or open a magazine without being assaulted by images that told them their only value in this world was sexual.”
Mr. Everett said, “The people around us were mindless like zombies. So many of them were addicted to harmful substances. One man even attacked another man and chewed off a portion of his face.”
“I remember that,” her mother said. “It makes sense with all of this evil surrounding you that you would want to leave it all behind.”
“But Julie didn’t want to come,” he said. “She said we all were separatists. She thought that we were actually making the problem worse by removing ourselves from the equation. She said we were taking some of the few people who actually could see through the muck and mire and removing them rather than using them to help.”
“Help? Help what?” Mrs. Newcomb asked.
Mr. Everett mumbled something that no one could understand. Sophie’s mother asked him to repeat himself.
“Help make the world a better place,” he said. His embarrassment was clear.
Her mother looked startled. “What a quaint idea,” she said, reaching for a cigarette and indulging in a habit Sophie didn’t remember her ever having back when her father was still alive. “It’s been a long time since I’ve heard such a sentiment.”
Mr. Everett leaned forward and eyed her mother. “Do you miss it?”
Sophie also edged closer, curious to hear what her mother would say. Leaving the cigarette behind, her mother rose from her seat and walked over to the wide window which looked out onto their front lawn. She tugged at the gossamer curtain as if she would yank it from its rod, then she trailed her fingers down the thin yellow silk. “I do my fair share of complaining about the small-mindedness of some of the folks here in the community, about the pettiness I’ve encountered since becoming a widow. Perhaps it’s my way of lashing out, getting some small and fine revenge because of the way they’ve treated me since I lost my husband.” Her mother let go of the curtain and wrapped her arms around herself. “But at the end of the day, if this is all that I have to complain about, coldness on the part of a handful of people who don’t know what to do with difference, then I’d say I’m far better off. I remember that world out there. I can’t quite ever get it out of my head. For the first years of living here I still heard gunshots where there weren’t ever any gunshots. I couldn’t stop looking over my shoulder whenever I walked home at night or pulled into my garage. Once Sophie was born I finally realized that none of those dangers were here and I finally stopped hearing the gunshots. Do I miss it? Always wondering about my safety? Knowing there was no sense, no rhyme or reason to the way certain people behaved? There’s nothing out there for me to miss.”
Certainly not,” Mrs. Newcomb agreed. “What a world it was!” She reached for a magazine and began to fan herself with it. “That world was just a place of falseness. False people. False apologies and false forgiveness. Sophie, anyone could subject anybody else to any sort of cruelty—betrayal, physical abuse, neglect, insincerity and just plain meanness—and it was all to be forgiven so long as the person eventually apologized. And of course, the apology wasn’t the kind to be trusted. It was a one size fits all kind of apology. All the people who had caused so much suffering, hurt and pain had to do was say something like ‘I meant no harm. I’m sorry for anything and everything I’ve ever done to hurt you’.”
“Then what?” Sophie asked.
Mrs. Newcomb shrugged. “Then you were supposed to forgive them.”
“Just like that?” she asked.
This time her mother answered. “Just like that.”
Even she, a girl too young to be joined, could see the clear wrong of such a practice, the falseness of the blanket apology, the ease of the absolution. Sophie had been taught that there could be no sincere apology without acknowledgment, repentance and atonement. Any other apology was purely a performance, as insincere as a thief apologizing for shoplifting while refusing to return the stolen items.
“There’s more,” Mr. Everett said. “If you were wronged and didn’t immediately forgive the other person, then the blame shifted from him or her to you simply because you wouldn’t get over it!”
Sophie was glad that she had never known that outside world of which the three adults had spoken. As she listened to them speak disparagingly of the world they’d left behind, it became clear to her that she stood apart from them. It wasn’t just that they were older. It was something else entirely, something she’d never noticed, never even thought of until that moment. There was a time when all three of them had been outsiders, something that she had never been and would never be. Sophie had lived in Togetherness her whole life. She’d been born in the town, born to the town. She didn’t know anything else, she did not have stories of the outside world, she didn’t know of any other life outside of this one. She had lived her entire life in this town that these three adults had helped to build. The three people sitting across from her had all come from elsewhere. They’d lived other lives, seen other things, had been a part of the outside world. They had stories between them which they could share or withhold, stories which Sophie herself could never fathom. Whatever they might tell her would be as alien to her understanding of the world and its workings as the story of a space creature who’d beamed down to describe life on his home planet.
“It sounds awful,” Sophie said.
“I don’t think Julie saw it that way,” Mr. Everett said. “She saw the hope and the possibility when all I saw was danger and despair. I just wanted to keep her safe and I could never do that out there in the world.”
“No, you never could have,” Sophie’s mother said.
After Mrs. Newcomb left, Sophie’s mother and Mr. Everett continued to talk quietly. Sophie emptied her mother’s ashtray and replenished the teacher’s tea and still the two adults kept talking. By the time Mrs. Newcomb left, Sophie understood that the evening had been part of her mother’s plan. Mrs. Newcomb had been invited not only to make Mr. Everett feel that he had more support than that of which he aware, but also so that Mrs. Newcomb might take his story to the other parents and report back. Sophie’s mother could not have done it; she was a widow and no one would have listened or taken her word for anything. But Mrs. Newcomb— strong, stalwart and Seth-doting—could be sent as an emissary to sway Mr. Everett’s detractors.
The second time Sophie came to refresh his tea, Mr. Everett was lamenting over his dwindling number of students. Since the incident with the lights, three more kids had been pulled out of his class. Now there were only four attending. He told Sophie’s mother that Keep Togetherness Together! signs had been posted on his house and that threatening messages had been written on his car.
As Sophie leaned over to pour out the hot water, she heard Mr. Everett say, “Taking my students was clearly just the first step. From here on out, it's only going to get worse.”
And it did.
The next week when Sophie attempted to enter the schoolhouse, she was prevented from doing so by parents standing arm-in-arm, blocking the entrance. She returned home early to find her mother kneeling on the lawn. When Sophie came nearer she saw that her mother was gathering small paper-covered rocks and making piles of them on the grass. "What are you doing?"
"These are the ones that missed," her mother said.
She followed her mother’s gaze. The lower windows of their house had been egged. Several windows had been broken.
When she faced her mother again, she saw her peeling one of the papers from a rock. "What does it say?" she asked.
Her mother refused to show Sophie the words.
"Because of Mr. Everett?"
The phone rang and her mother ran inside to answer it. Sophie followed her into the house, but went into a different room and silently picked up the other receiver. She heard a stranger’s voice. The voice shouted at her mother, saying too many things too loudly and angrily for Sophie to understand. Sophie recoiled from the anger and the volume. Without waiting to see how her mother might respond, she slipped the phone back into its cradle.
After the letter-covered rocks, there were thinly veiled discussions on the radio stations. There were Keep Togetherness Together! pamphlets and flyers. Then there were the bumper stickers. And the large white wooden signs stuck deep into the ground in front of their house that were just like the ones on Mr. Everett's lawn.
Then there were the people. They waited outside in packs, hoping for a glimpse of Sophie or her mother. Her mother predicted that they would soon get bored and go away. Instead they stayed. Each day their numbers increased as more and more came. Sophie didn't even realize there were so many people in her town. It was as if the whole town was there at once, outside on their lawn. They were angry at her and her mother but Sophie didn't know why. When asked, her mother adopted the same tone she’d used to explain the birds and the bees. She explained that sometimes living in a place like Togetherness could be difficult, but that Sophie shouldn’t blame the folks in town. Her mother said that they didn't know any better and were just suspicious of other people's ways. The only problem was that Sophie, her mother and Mr. Everett were now the other people. Sophie pretended to accept the simplified explanation, but she thought to herself that there must surely have been some townsfolk who supported Mr. Everett. Surely, there had to be some people that were on their side, but who they might be, Sophie couldn't guess.
One week later, Sophie woke up to find the crowd had dispersed. She came out from her bedroom and went down the stairs and opened the front door to find the protesters gone. Only their debris remained. She went outside and stood on the dew-covered lawn and slowly began to pick up their trash. The townsfolk had left their wrappings, their cups and their straws. Every now and then, Sophie picked up a crumpled dollar and pocketed it. Soon her mother came out and joined her. Stunned, neither of them mentioned the absence of the crowd.
Sophie was the first to see Mr. Everett approaching from across the street. She waved, although she felt much more like mourning. Mr. Everett looked like a broken man. His clothing was disheveled, his hair uncombed and his eyes bleary. He looked to her as if he hadn't slept in some time. Sophie had never seen him like this before. She didn't know what to say to him when he crossed onto their lawn.
“Rough night?” her mother asked, scooping trash into a large plastic bag.
Mr. Everett kicked at an empty can of soda and sent it clanging down the pavement. “I don't have anything left,” he said. “Nothing at all. They took it. Everything.”
Sophie thought the teacher had been robbed. She dropped her trash back onto the lawn and approached him, intending to take his hand the way she had done that first day in the classroom when he'd turned off the lights. She reached for his hand and Mr. Everett grabbed her and turned her, holding her in front of him, his forearm crushing her neck. Her mother screamed. Mr. Everett backed away from her mother, dragging Sophie with him.
“They burned my house down,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” Sophie choked out, assuming that he was talking to her. It was only right that he should blame her. After all, she had taken him from the classroom that day and brought him home. Maybe none of it would have happened if she hadn't.
"Sophie, don't move!" her mother cried.
Pressed against him as she was, Sophie couldn't have moved if she'd wanted to. She smelled the acrid scent of smoke on his clothing and wondered how long Mr. Everett had fought with the fire. He smelled like something burning. A fierce calm took Sophie. She wasn’t scared at all. Although the face of his watch bit into her throat, she didn't think Mr. Everett would ever really hurt her.
"Let her go!" It was her mother's voice again, but Sophie barely recognized it. Already she was distancing herself from it all, already she was slipping away, regarding her mother as a woman she faintly knew, already she was siding with Mr. Everett.
"I can't," he said. "They'll never let me go. It's the only way."
Her mother's face was fierce and sharp. "So you'll hurt us? We've been kind to you."
He shook his head. "No, not you. Her, maybe. She's been kind. You think I can't see your pity for what it is? I don't need your help or your dinners."
“I don’t want you to take my daughter out there,” her mother said.
“Julie’s out there. My daughter’s out there!”
"P-please don't hurt my baby,” Sophie’s mother cried. “Don’t take her hostage.”
Sophie listened as if this all were happening to someone else. She was not terribly interested in the outcome. She and Mr. Everett would go. That she knew. Her mother would not be able to stop the two of them. They were tsunami waves, big and seeking, moved by forces of nature beyond their control. Her mother could not hold them back.
Mr. Everett said, "It's a kindness, really. She doesn't belong here. She'll see everything differently once we’re gone."
Mr. Everett, don't be scared. I'll go away with you, Sophie wanted to say.
"You won't hurt her?" Her mother was crying now, the sharpness gone.
"I—would—never—hurt—" He looked at his arm and seemed surprised to find her throat crushed behind it.
"Take me with you," her mother said. "I don't belong here either anymore."
"No. I don't think so?" There was a question in his voice, as if her mother had the answer.
Her mother pressed on. "We'll look like a family traveling all together."
"A family?" Mr. Everett asked as if he'd never heard those words put together in just that way. "Traveling? Together?"
"Yes," her mother said, nodding and smiling as though to a child.
"A family," he whispered. Sophie felt his arm slacken at her throat.
"Come Sophie," her mother said, holding out her hand. Mr. Everett let her go. "Go and get your things," he said, following close behind. “Hurry!”
Her mother led her up the stairs to her bedroom. It seemed to Sophie as if she'd been away from the room for days and years rather than minutes. Her mother lingered at the window in Sophie’s bedroom before firmly closing it, and Sophie looked around the strange room, knowing that it was hers but not really believing it. Ever since Mr. Everett said she was going with him, it had not been hers.
Sophie sat on the bed while her mother packed for her. It did not seem real to her that this thing could be so easily done, their lives wrapped and tidied so neatly, but there was the proof of it in her mother's slow but efficient packing. Her head bent over an opened suitcase, her mother said, "If there's something you want to keep, you'd better take it now, Sophie." Sophie felt no sentimental attachment to any of the items her mother packed; she had a feeling that she wouldn't need these things in her new life. Mr. Everett hovered in the doorway like a specter, oddly silent and watchful. Sophie sat back against the bed, ignoring her mother's urgings. Briefly, she wondered if Seth would miss her if she went away with Mr. Everett or if he would begin to keep company with Kristen, the Newcomb’s second choice for him. She’d always liked knowing that Kristen was runner-up to her, second in all the ways that counted, but now as she thought of Mr. Everett waiting just outside her bedroom door, standing at the edge of the stair’s landing, Seth did not seem like such a concern. Kristen could have him. Sophie was putting away her childish things now. She liked Seth well enough, but now she saw that Seth meant nothing and never could.
As soon as they left the house, the crowd converged upon them. Signaled by Sophie’s mother at the window, the townspeople came and blocked the pathway between the front door and the car, surrounding them on all sides, separating Sophie’s mother from Mr. Everett and trying to separate Sophie too. Sophie was holding Mr. Everett’s hand tightly, too scared to look up and see how he was taking all of this. The parents, the townspeople, were all so many tall bodies surrounding her that she saw only torsos, buttons and belts. She gave Mr. Everett’s hand a squeeze to let him know that she would follow, that they would stay together no matter what, but Mr. Everett did not squeeze back. He looked down at her and spoke to her one last time, in as gentle a voice as the one he’d used that fateful day she’d overheard him in class. Then he let go of Sophie’s hand and allowed the crowd to devour him. So loud was it in its satisfaction to have him it did not stop to hear his last words. Sophie was the only one close enough to hear. Later, when her mother asked her, she would pretend not to know. She would keep the secret and never tell anyone that in the end Mr. Everett had apologized. He’d said that he hadn’t meant to disturb anyone. He’d apologized for any harm he might have caused. He had said that he was sorry—so sorry—for everything.