Home > Uncategorized > Day Two Hundred and Thirty-eight: After-School Special

Day Two Hundred and Thirty-eight: After-School Special

Wade stood by his windowless panel van in the warm autumn sunlight and watched the schoolkids walk by him. He was unassuming, dressed like any laborer might be in the heart of the Southwest, done up in denim and cotton that was all covered with the faintest shimmer of desert dust. He leaned against the van, keeping his eye on the kids, and lit a cigarette. None of them seemed like what he was looking for just yet, but he’d know it when he saw it.

The state-mandated “ring of protection” around schools for people like him was a thousand yards, and he’d measured it to the inch. Between his GPS and some good, old-fashioned trigonometry, he knew that the thousand-yard barrier ended a foot away from his front bumper, putting him out of the direct reach of the law. But still close enough that he could watch the kids go to school and go home, that he could spend time there, nod when they went past. Become familiar to them.

He’d done this plenty of times before, in one town or another. He could get away with it for a while, at least until the local law decided to take an interest. Or some nosy community group thought he looked too shady. There was never enough time, to tell the truth, before he had to hop in the van and drive off into the dust, looking for another town to set up in.

A lone child caught his eye, on his way home from the junior high school. Probably twelve or thirteen, the boy was wrapped up in his own world. He had headphones plugged into his ears and his eyes glued to his cell phone. There was a space between him and the other kids, the ones who walked in groups. This boy walked alone, and that made him stand out like a beacon to Wade.

Quickly, he ground the cigarette out with his heel and reached in through the passenger side window. He pulled out a book, battered and yellowed with age but with a bright cover that depicted a man standing before a raging sea, arms upraised in either submission or defiance. The author’s name was written along the bottom of the cover. The top was taken up with the title – Isle of Storms. Wade opened it to a random point and started reading, watching the lone kid from the corner of his eye. As the boy approached, Wade started counting in his head, keeping count of the boy’s footsteps as his sneakers padded against the asphalt.

The kid would have passed him in two steps if Wade hadn’t let the book fall from his hands, turning end-over-end until it landed on the road at the boy’s feet, gleaming red in the sunshine. The boy stopped, and bent down to pick it up. Wade went down a fraction of a moment later, and they got to it at the same time. He let the boy take it.

“Here you are, mister,” the kid said, holding the book out. The boy was small, and didn’t look at Wade’s face. His eyes seemed to turn inward, looking at his own thoughts past an over-long fringe of red hair. He spoke a little too loud, maybe to overcome the noise in his ears. Wade replied quietly to him, his voice barely audible to himself, and the boy glanced up at him. “What?” He hooked a finger in the cord of his earphones and popped them out.

“I said thanks,” Wade said, smiling broadly. This was always the hardest moment – the hook. Do it wrong, and the kid would walk away. Maybe bored, maybe a little creeped out – it wouldn’t matter. The opportunity would be lost forever. Do it right, and the kid would be his. He shoved his hands in the pockets of his denim jacket. “Hey,” he said to the boy. “Haven’t I seen you before?”

The kid shrugged and proffered the book again. “Maybe,” he said. His eyes were turning away again, and Wade cursed under his breath.

He looked down at the book. “Keep it,” he said.

This time the boy looked up. First at him, then at the book, and it was the book that grabbed his attention. He held it close to his face, and the red cover reflected onto his pale skin. He looked up at Wade and said, “What is it?”

Wade raised an eyebrow. “It’s a book,” he said. “You don’t have ’em in your school?”

The kid rolled his eyes. “We have books,” he said. “But they suck.” His eyes drifted down to the cover again. “And they don’t look anything like this.”

“Well,” Wade said. “I guarantee you that one doesn’t suck.”

“Yeah?” The kid was letting it catch the light. “What’s it about?”

Wade leaned back against the white van, his hands still in his pockets and his legs stretched out in front of him. “It’s about a man who fights against the whole damn world,” he said. He winked at the boy. “You’ll have to read it to get the rest.” He looked up at the sky as though he had all the time in the world to talk like this. In his head, he was calculating, trying to figure out what else he’d need to do to close the deal. “I’ve got plenty more,” he said.

That got the boy’s interest. “Yeah?”

Wade nodded, then he rapped the side of the van with one knuckle. “Got a whole bunch of ’em in here,” he said.

The kid looked from the book to the van to Wade and back to the book again. “Yeah?” he said again.

Wade nodded, and then stood up straight. “What’s your name, son?” he asked. He pushed the relaxed jokiness out of his voice, making it more grave, more serious. It was the voice of a concerned uncle.

The boy hesitated for a moment, his grip tightening on the book. “Daniel,” he said. “Daniel Deveaux”

“Well, Daniel,” Wade said, bending down to get a little closer to the boy’s level. “If you want, I could let you take a look at my books. Maybe take one or two home with you for a while?” Daniel’s dark green eyes did that flicker again – book to van to Wade – and he opened his mouth to reply. “But,” Wade said, interrupting him. “You gotta make me a promise first. Can you do that, Daniel?”

Daniel nodded after a moment, his gaze steady for the first time.

“Good,” Wade said. “Now you gotta promise that you’re not gonna say anything about this, okay?”

“Why not?” Daniel looked suspicious, and that signaled the last of the barriers that Wade had to get past.

“Well,” he said, standing up again. “There are those who don’t appreciate guys like me helping out kids like you, Daniel,” he said. He patted the side of the van again. “And that’s what I mean to do. Help you out.”

“How’re you going to help me?” Daniel said. “I don’t need any help.”

“Sure you do,” Wade said. He looked off towards the school, barely visible past the trees. “All you kids need my help in a place like this.” He felt himself go far away for a moment. He was speaking the truth, at least as he knew it. There were hundreds of kids in this school – thousands of them in the state – and he couldn’t get to all of them. Even if he worked a thousand years, he’d never catch nearly as many as slipped through his fingers. And that pained him. It really did.

He looked up at the sun. “Getting late,” he said. “You wanna take a look or not?” he asked.

Daniel looked around. There were no other kids there – they had all gone by, most of them either absorbed in their electronics or talking to their friends. By now, they had probably forgotten the white van and the tall, lanky guy who hung out beside it. He looked down at the book and then up at Wade before nodding once. “Okay,” he said.

Wade tried to control his excitement. “Okay,” he said. “Come ’round the back.” He dug the keys out of his jacket pocket and unlocked the back doors of the van. Before he opened them, though, he looked at Daniel again. “Remember,” he said. “Our secret. Right?” Daniel nodded again, his grip tight on the book. “Okay then,” Wade said. “Come on in.”

He flung open the back doors, and the faintly musty smell of old paper wafted out in a cloud. Daniel’s eyes widened as he looked at the boxes and crates that were stacked inside, each one filled with books. There were hardcovers and paperbacks alike, fitting neatly in cardboard boxes that were labeled with magic marker – Fantasy. Science Fiction. History. Biology. Current Events. Wade gestured at the mobile library, lit by a small, battery-powered lantern that hung from the ceiling. “Go on,” he said. “Take a look around.”

Daniel put the paperback in his pocket and stepped up into the van. He started picking through books, turning them over in his hands. “Where did you get all these?” he asked. He picked up a history book, one which unfortunately stopped about a decade ago. “Where’s this one from?” he asked.

“That’s U.S. history,” Wade said. “Revolution to the present.” He shrugged. “Sort of.”

“Where’s the state stamp?” Daniel said, and it was all Wade could do not to sneer.

“There is none,” Wade said. “Back in the day, we didn’t need the state to tell us what history was.” He nodded towards the other boxes. “Or science. Or literature.”

Daniel flipped through the history book. “Then how did you pass the tests?” he asked. He stopped on a page with a decade’s worth of photos on it. There were images of hope and peace, of war and brutality, of humanity in all its light and darkness. Not like the modern history books, which were just facts – contextless and de-fanged. All the kids had to do was know what was in the book, remember it long enough to pass the national qualifying exams, and their work was over. Whatever they had held in their head was allowed to fade.

Wade reached out and tapped a picture. It was of a woman, standing before a green chalkboard with dates and names written on it. Her face was shining with enthusiasm, and she seemed to be in the process of calling a student’s name. “We had people like her,” Wade said. “Teachers.”

“I have teachers,” Daniel said.

“Not like her, you don’t,” Wade replied. He chuckled, and Daniel looked up at him. “At least, not until now.” He reached into a different box and pulled out a thin volume of Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet were on the cover, locked in the embrace that would surely be their last.

“My name’s Wade Tigney, Daniel Deveaux. And I’m a teacher.” He sat in the doorway to the van, one leg up. “Last of my kind.” He pulled the pack of cigarettes out of his pocket, and the boy’s eyes went wide. First there were books that weren’t state-sanctioned, and now he was smoking? Wade took a deep inhale of youthful rebellion and let the smoke waft out of his mouth. Then he turned to Daniel.

“So, kid,” he said. “What do you want to know?”

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