Of course everything was smaller than Kathleen remembered, even the desks. In particular, the desks. But, now, what had she really expected? Had she expected the desk at which she had sat, age eight, had she expected that desk to fit her now? Had she, really? Had she really, really, really-really expected these desks to be the same size as a BA in Biology, an MA in Criminal Justice, a contract with a shadowy government agency, a salary with sterling benefits, a life with furniture?
It was almost stupid to think that she’d ever been told to sit at a desk at all.
Kathleen hadn’t yet found a way to tell her partner, Benny, that this particular elementary school was her alma mater. Not that she was allowed to divulge that kind of personal data, although, not that it really would have ruined the operation if she had said something. She wouldn’t have bored him with the nostalgic things, of course, she wouldn’t have told him the significance of this water fountain or that rusted book return. She would have just told him, look, although this operation is covert and the best way to be invisible is to never ask any questions, the fact is that I know the fastest way to run from the playground to the caf without even studying the contents of that leather folder. The fact is that I know there’s no gas connected in any of the science rooms. The fact is that there’s an alcove off the gym where kids take music lessons. It’s a storage closet but there’s a piano in there, and probably some blunt objects. That part would have make him smile. Benny liked blunt objects because they always worked.
She kept close to the fourth-grade walls (family photos stapled to reports written on thickly ruled three-hole punch paper), her starfish-shaped alien-egg-locator-device (blinking, but quiet) in her right hand and a digital camera in her left. Her gun remained belted. It didn’t seem right and they didn’t know how The Bird (which was what they were calling it, although, talk about a failure of vocabulary) would even react to bullets. As Kathleen turned the corner towards the second grade hallway, she saw Benny crouched in the doorway of the nurse’s office, his ear pressed against the skinny wooden door. He beckoned to her and she crossed to crouch beside him.
“The Bird wouldn’t be in there,” she murmured. “He said it wants bathrooms. For the water pressure. To lay eggs.”
“I don’t think we’re calling them eggs,” said Benny. “That’s not what J.M. called them, anyway.”
“Who cares,” said Kathleen.
“You should,” said Benny. “That stuff gets in the water supply–”
“I know,” she said. “Etcetera etcetera we all go to hell.”
“Well,” said Benny. “Anyway, there are always sinks in nurse’s offices.”
Kathleen couldn’t picture a sink in the nurse’s office at all, in fact the only thing she could recall was a curtain and a voice coming through headphones to demand whether or not the apple was sitting on or off the picnic table. A vision test, maybe, or just a bad dream. Sinks, however.
“Sinks are in every classroom,” she said.
“I know, I saw the plans,” said Benny.
“No,” said Kathleen. “I mean–yes. Every classroom.”
“Quiet,” he said, not unkindly though he had every right to be annoyed. Actually he never really snapped at her, which she figured was because he was so much older than her. Probably there was someone she reminded him of, but they never talked about things like that. Kathleen put away her camera and drew the gun after all. Benny nodded and counted off with his fingers in the air. They burst in, shoes squeaking.
Of course The Bird was in there–Benny had wonderful instincts–but now it was making a noise like a siren and knocking over flasks of tongue depressors. Benny screamed at it like he screamed at everything they trapped–Benny did not have a great bedside manner–while Kathleen kept her eyes on the wings. J.M. had said about the wings that aside from being the reason he wanted to call this thing The Bird, the wings were also the creature’s most dangerous part.
She had a syringe that J.M. had given her and now Benny was yelling at her as well as at the bird and what, why, just because it was taking her just forever to get it out of her pouch, god! Why’d she drawn her gun in the first place! Now it was in the way and everything seemed to catch on everything else OH GODDAMN she hated having to approach these things with Benny’s gun swinging and swiveling and the bird’s head doing the same so she yelled too, something nonsense like, EVERYBODY IN THE POOL! And she stuck the needle in the damn glowing panhandle of a foot this bird had, and wouldn’t you know it, as soon as the sedative or whatever (J.M. hated to explain) hit the blood or whatever (did these things ever bleed) the thing stopped looking like a bird and kind of collapsed, the glowing ceasing, the bird now looking for all the world like a furry eel that had sort of grown legs.
“The wings must have retracted,” said Benny.
“I don’t think we’re calling them wings,” said Kathleen, quite unkindly, but Benny already had left the room to get the cage.
The sink that Kathleen had not been able to remember turned out to be right next to the door, easy to miss if you were eight years old and just barreling into the room as quick as you could to get a bandage and some sympathy. The faucet was on, she noticed, and then immediately she felt sick. The footed-eel-bird had already got to the water. She pulled out the tracking device which was all of a sudden going off like bonkers, of course, fantastic, the damn thing couldn’t have warned her earlier, could it, and now they’d have to shut down the school and she have to make an unpleasant phone call.
She pocketed the device, turned off the faucet, and waited for Benny to come back. When he did he had both the cage and that awful, righteous look in his eye he got after every capture. She wanted to undercut him, somehow, punch him in his stupid fleshy ego, but they did have to work together the next day, and the next, and the next next next on to the horizon, so, it was better to take a breath and focus on the acoustic tile.
“What’s with you?” he said as he gently slipped the creature through the cage door.
“The water was on,” she said.
“No, it wasn’t,” he said.
“Benny,” she said, and pulled the device back out, holding it near the sink. Blink blip-TA-blip-TA-blip-TA-blip-TA and Benny cursed. The creature sighed in its sleep and Kathleen thought she saw a smile on its hovering face.
“We have to call J.M.,” said Benny.
“I can do it,” said Kathleen, and for this Benny squeezed her shoulder with his bear paw hand. J.M. took to her better than Benny, naturally, it was the sweetpea lilt she pressed into her voice whenever they spoke. They were a coalition of manipulators and on top of this she was a girl, fantastic! And all the riches therein.
Benny left her in the nurse’s office to make the call but she didn’t stay there, choosing instead to walk back to the library. She swept aside some picture books and sat on a low bookcase, near a radiator. From the windows there she watched as Benny loaded the van, taking such good professional care to keep the cage level. He shut the doors of the van, checked his watch and his messages, then glanced back at the school, apparently wondering where she was. After another minute he walked a few yards from the van and lit a cigarette. Later he would probably lie to his tolerant wife about the cigarette’s existence. Wife-lying happened a lot. Kathleen would get around it by not marrying. She had already decided.
Kathleen knew she was young and there were other things about her life, aside from not marrying, that would need to be sorted out. Mostly though she felt these things would shake out on their own. Plus soon, she thought, she’d be hardened and tough and it would feel like an age and a lifetime since she had felt the feeling she was right now feeling all the time. The feeling like any day now she would go absolutely crazy and tell J.M. everything that Benny had told her in confidence, or maybe tell Benny everything that J.M. had told her confidence. Those exchanges alone would likely make the whole operation collapse. Or she could get a new partner and tell him (him him him him him) some choice secrets and then,–she smiled, as she piled some books under her head and kicked a few more off the shelf to make room for her legs–well, really that’s all it would take! Just a few years of slipping secrets and J.M.’s job would be hers, unless they hired anyone prettier in the meantime which was not likely to happen, because were they even hiring? Or what if she died.
The radiator blew cold air through her fingers and she called J.M. while still lying down.
In the van she and Benny didn’t speak right away, then he asked her if she was hungry and she said no, and oh, not to worry about J.M., he didn’t sound mad at all. Benny didn’t believe her, but instead of saying that, he said he was hungry, and she said, well, they had to make the drop before they got anything to eat, and Benny said of course in a particular way that meant she’d offended him, of course.
“He’s looking for a way to let me go, you know,” said Benny.
“He knows this wasn’t your fault,” said Kathleen.
Benny turned up the radio, which is why they didn’t hear the bird as it cried out awake, and why they didn’t hear it maneuvering the lock, and why, at the moment their van veered off the highway and slammed into three trees, the whole thing was coming as a complete surprise to both of them.