I Am Number Four

Page 36

 

  “I wasn’t in that house on Saturday,” I say out loud, and as soon as I do I feel stupid. Then I look away, sigh, and jump off the rock.

  “Well,” I say to Bernie Kosar. “This is it, for good or bad. ”

  He opens his eyes briefly, then closes them and resumes his nap on the cold ground.

  I tear the binding away and lift the top paper. The story has made the front page. At the very top is a picture of the burned rubble taken the next morning at dawn. There is a gothic, foreboding feel to it. Blackened ash is forefront to naked trees and frost-covered grass. I read the headline:

  JAMES HOUSE GOES UP IN SMOKE

  I hold my breath, a miserable feeling centered in my gut as though horrible news is about to find me. I race through the article. I don’t read it, only look for my name. I reach the end. I blink my eyes and shake my head to rid myself of the cobwebs. A cautious smile forms. Then I scan through it again.

  “No way,” I say. “Bernie Kosar, my name isn’t here!”

  He pays me no attention. I run across the grass and jump back on the rock.

  “My name isn’t here!” I yell again, this time as loudly as I can.

  I sit back down and read the story. The headline is a play on Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke, which is apparently a movie about drugs. What the police believe started the blaze was a marijuana joint being smoked in the basement. How that information was discovered, I have no idea, especially because it is so wrong. The article itself is callous and mean, almost an attack on the James family. I didn’t like the reporter. It’s apparent that he doesn’t like the Jameses. Who knows why?

  I sit on the rock and read the article three times before the first person arrives to unlock the doors. I can’t stop smiling. I’m staying in Ohio, in Paradise. The town name doesn’t seem so foolish to me anymore. Through my excitement I feel as though I’m overlooking something, that I’ve forgotten a key component. But I’m so happy that I don’t care. What harm can come now? My name isn’t in the article. I didn’t run into that house. The proof is right here, in my hands. Nobody can say otherwise.

  “What are you so happy about?” Sam asks in astronomy class. I haven’t stopped smiling.

  “Didn’t you read the paper this morning?”

  He nods.

  “Sam, I wasn’t in it! I don’t have to leave. ”

  “Why would they put you in the paper?” he asks.

  I’m dumbfounded. I open my mouth to argue with him but just then Sarah walks into the room. She comes sauntering up the aisle.

  “Hey, gorgeous,” I say.

  She bends down and kisses me on the cheek, something I’ll never take for granted.

  “Somebody’s in a happy mood today,” she says.

  “Happy to see you,” I say. “Nervous about your driver’s test?”

  “Maybe a little. Just can’t wait until it’s over. ”

  She sits down beside me. This is my day, I think. This is where I want to be and this is where I am. Sarah on one side, Sam on the other.

  I go to class as I’ve done all the other days. I sit with Sam at lunch. We don’t talk about the fire. We must be the only two in the whole school not talking about it. The same story, over and over. I never hear my name spoken once. As I expected, Mark isn’t in school. A rumor spreads that he and several of the others will be suspended for the theory the paper has spouted. I don’t know if it’s true or not. I don’t know if I care.

  By the time Sarah and I enter the kitchen for eighth-period home ec, my certainty that I’m safe has taken a firm hold. Such a strong certainty that I’m confident I must be wrong, that something has been overlooked. The doubt has been creeping up throughout the day but I’ve been quick to push it back down.

  We make tapioca pudding. An easy day. In the middle of class, the kitchen door opens. It’s the hall monitor. I look at him and I know immediately what it means. The harbinger of bad news. The messenger of death. He walks straight up to me and hands me a slip of paper.

  “Mr. Harris wants to see you,” he says.

  “Now?”

  He nods.

  I look at Sarah and shrug. I don’t want her to see my fear. I smile at her and walk to the door. Before I leave I turn around and look at her again. She’s bent over the table mixing our ingredients, wearing the same green apron that I tied on her my first day, the day we made pancakes and ate them off the same plate. Her hair is in a ponytail and loose strands dangle in front of her face. She tucks them behind her ear and as she does she sees me standing in the doorway watching her. I keep staring, trying to remember every minute detail of this moment, the way she grips the wooden spoon in her hand, the ivory look to her skin with the light coming in the windows behind her, the tenderness in her eyes. Her shirt has a loose button at the collar. I wonder if she knows about it. Then the hall monitor says something behind me. I wave at Sarah, shut the door, and walk down the hall. I take my time, trying to convince myself that it’s just a formality, some document we forgot to sign, some question about transcripts. But I know it’s not just a formality.

  Mr. Harris sits at his desk when I enter the office. He is smiling in a way that terrifies me, the same prideful smile that he had on the day he pulled Mark from class to do the interview.

  “Sit down,” he says. I sit. “So, is it true?” he asks. He glances at his computer screen, then he looks back at me.

  “Is what true?”

  On his desk there is an envelope with my name handwritten in black ink. He sees me looking at it.

  “Oh yes, this was faxed to you about half an hour ago. ”

  He picks the envelope up and tosses it to me. I catch it.

  “What is it?” I ask.

  “No idea. My secretary sealed it in the envelope as soon as it arrived. ”

  Several things happen at once. I open the envelope and remove its contents. Two sheets of paper. The top is a cover page with my name on it and “CONFIDENTIAL” written in large black letters. I shuffle it behind the second sheet. A single sentence written in all capitals. No name. Just four black words on a white canvas.

  “So, Mr. Smith, is it true? Did you run into that burning house to save Sarah Hart and those dogs?” Mr. Harris asks. Blood rushes to my face. I look up. He turns his computer monitor towards me so that I can read the screen. It’s the blog affiliated with the Paradise Gazette. I don’t need to look at the name of the author to know who has written it. The title is more than enough.

  THE JAMES HOUSE FIRE: THE UNTOLD STORY

  My breath catches in my throat. My heart races. The world stops, or at least it seems to. I feel dead inside. I look back down at the sheet of paper I’m holding. White paper, smooth in my fingertips. It reads:

  ARE YOU NUMBER 4?

  Both sheets fall from my hands, drift away, and float to the floor, where they lie motionless. I don’t understand, I think. How can this be?

  “So is it?” Mr. Harris asks.

  My mouth drops open. Mr. Harris is smiling, proud, happy. But it’s not him that I see. It’s what’s behind him, seen through the windows of his office. A blur of red coming around the corner, moving faster than what is normal, than what is safe. The squeal of tires as it zips into the lot. The pickup truck throwing gravel as it makes a second turn. Henri leaning over the wheel like some crazed maniac. He hits the brakes so forcefully that his whole body jerks and the truck comes screeching to a stop.

  I close my eyes.

  I place my head in my hands.

  Through the window I hear the truck door open. I hear it close.

  Henri will be in this office within the minute.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

  “ARE YOU OKAY, MR. SMITH?” THE PRINCIPAL asks. I look up at him. He attempts his best look of concern, a look that lasts only a second before the toothy grin returns to his face.

  “No, Mr. Harris,” I say. “I’m not okay. ”

  I pick the sheet up off the floo
r. I read it again. Where did it come from? Are they merely screwing with us now? There is no phone number or address, no name. Nothing but four words and a question mark. I look up and out the window. Henri’s truck is parked, fumes rising from the exhaust. In and out as quickly as he can. I look back at the computer screen. The article was posted at 11:59 a. m. , almost two hours ago. I’m amazed it took Henri this long to arrive. A sense of vertigo seeps in. I feel myself sway.

  “Do you need the nurse?” Mr. Harris asks.

  The nurse, I think. No, I don’t need the nurse. The nurse’s station is the room beside the home economics kitchen. What I need, Mr. Harris, is to go back there, fifteen minutes ago, before the hall monitor arrived. Sarah must have the pudding on the stove by now. I wonder if it’s boiling yet. Is she looking towards the door, waiting for me to return?

  The faint echo of the school doors slamming shut reaches the principal’s office. Fifteen seconds until Henri is here. Then to his truck. Then home. Then where? To Maine? Missouri? Canada? A different school, a new beginning, another new name.

  I haven’t slept in almost thirty hours and only now do I feel the exhaustion. But then something else enters with it, and in that split second between instinct and action, the reality that I’m going away forever without the chance to say good-bye is suddenly too much to bear. My eyes narrow, my face twists in agony, and—without thinking, without truly knowing what it is that I’m doing—I lunge over Mr. Harris’s desk and crash through the plate-glass window, which shatters into a million little pieces behind me. A scream of shock follows.

  My feet land in the outside grass. I turn right and run across the schoolyard, the classrooms passing in a blur to my right, across the lot and into the woods that lie beyond the baseball field. There are cuts on my forehead and left elbow from the glass. My lungs are burning. The hell with the pain. I keep going, the sheet of paper still in my right hand. I shove it into my pocket. Why would the Mogadorians send a fax? Wouldn’t they just show up? That is their main advantage, to arrive unexpectedly, without warning. The benefit of surprise.

  I take a hard left in the middle of the woods, weaving in and out of the forest’s density until it ends and a field begins. Cows chewing cud watch with blank eyes as I streak past. I beat Henri to the house. Bernie Kosar is nowhere to be seen. I burst through the door and stop dead in my tracks. My breath catches in my throat. At the kitchen table, in front of Henri’s open laptop, sits a person I immediately think is one of them. They’ve beat me here, have worked it out so that I am alone, without Henri. The person turns around and I clench my hands into fists and am ready to fight.

  But it’s Mark James.

  “What are you doing here?” I ask.

  “I’m trying to figure out what’s going on,” he says, a look of fright evident in his eyes. “Who the hell are you?”

  “What are you talking about?”

  “Look,” he says, pointing to the computer screen.

  I walk to him, but I don’t look at the screen, my eyes instead focusing on the white sheet of paper sitting beside the computer. It’s an exact replica of the sheet in my pocket except for the paper that it’s printed on, which is thicker than the fax. And then I notice something else. At the bottom of Henri’s, in very small handwriting, is a phone number. Surely they can’t expect us to call? “Yes, it’s me, Number Four. I am here waiting for you. We’ve been running for ten years, but please, come kill us now; we won’t put up a fight. ” It makes no sense at all.