Alan had just loaded his trunk and was returning his cart to the bin when he was stopped for a few seconds—that was all—cornered by Mrs. Fourkiller. She asked about the impending school district consolidation, and he asked how Scrappy, her husband, was doing, if he'd gained mobility in his knee since the car accident, and then when he turned around, a mother to one of his students, Amber Montgomery, was screaming.
The IGA parking lot wasn't packed by any means. A high school boy herded up shopping carts—Brentley was his name—a long train stretched out in front of him. Mary Redtree, a first-year history teacher, packed the trunk of her hatchback with brown paper bags. A Honda Civic parked in a handicap spot. Parents dragged their children behind them. A few old men, their cowboy hats prim and spotless, chewed tobacco on the bench by the newspaper rack. It was a typical Saturday afternoon, trash blowing around in the harsh spring breeze.
"Amber!" her mother yelled, hands cupped around her mouth. She let go of her shopping cart, and it rolled down the inclined parking lot, crashing finally into an old minivan. "Amber!" she yelled. "Please! Answer me!"
He'd watched Amber while in the store, followed her down the dog food aisle and the frozen food section and the deli meats, contemplating whether or not he should speak. She was seventeen and pretty in a diffident sort of way. She wasn't popular or well regarded by her teachers, and when Alan would run across her in school, she was often alone in the library, perusing how-to books for surviving in the wilderness or large-game hunting. She rarely smiled, and when she did, she covered her mouth with her hand. He'd always made an effort to speak with her when he saw her, to say hello and ask her how her studies were going, life at home. At first, she was shy when he asked, but after a while she warmed up to him, and about once per week she would stop by his office to ask his advice about one thing or another, if she should take the ACT or maybe just get a job after graduation in Bartlesville or Tulsa. Alan had to admit that he enjoyed these little outings—they were the only times he ever felt he made a difference in his position—but lately teachers and parents and students had started to spread rumors of an inappropriate relationship. He'd been thinking he should speak with Amber about this when she spotted him watching her. They'd been in the produce section near the exit, and she approached him with her arms clasped in front of her like she had to protect herself, and Alan couldn't help but be a little hurt by this—he didn't, after all, wish her any harm.
Out in the parking lot, her mother ran the aisles. She called out Amber's name and ran around the back of the store. She looked under cars. She looked in the alcove where the unused shopping carts were stored. She even looked in the big blue dumpster. She looked and looked and looked, and Alan just stood there watching her—they all did: Brentley and Mrs. Fourkiller and the old men—none of them willing to help.
The school had no money. That was just the plain reality of the matter, and that wouldn't change. The sooner the staff understood that fact, the quicker they could move on, plan for the inevitable—them all losing their jobs, their students being absorbed into larger school districts, Bartlesville mostly, their dying town mercifully relieved of its last, wheezing gasp. Evidence of the situation surrounded all of them. He didn't even have a door on his office anymore, just a curtain. An unruly student had shattered the glass, and instead of replacing it he just took it off its hinges. It now resided in the basement, stored away in the corner of the school's tornado shelter.
But here was Ms. Redtree, asking for money. "The Land Run is a part of this state's identity," she explained. "The kids deserve to know what happened."
"I'm not saying not teach them. They have books. Use those. A re-creation of the event is entirely unnecessary. And not within our budget."
"Please don't be condescending. I am well aware they have textbooks. Outdated, but they have them."
Alan sighed and pinched his nose like he was holding in a sneeze. "I'm not trying to be condescending. I'm trying to tell you the truth."
"These kids deserve this," she said. "They need to get out of the classroom. They need learning to be fun. They need to get their minds off their missing classmate."
Fun? Was she serious?
This was why he never should've hired a rookie teacher. They graduated from college full of hope and idealism and principle. They had fantasies of being Robin Williams in Dead Poet's Society, students addressing an abusive authority figure and proclaiming their love for their dutiful teacher, "Oh, Captain! My Captain!" Alan was sure he'd been that authority figure in many of Ms. Redtree's daydreams. She had that look about her, wistful. Her hair flittered about her face, and the whites of her eyes were bright, not like his, yellowed and reddened by years of no sleep and a three-drink minimum in his recliner.
"What if I paid for the supplies myself?" Ms. Redtree asked.
"Yourself? On your salary?"
"Now you're being condescending and offensive."
He wished he could've had a taste of scotch right then. He'd never brought a bottle to school, unlike some of the teachers, Mr. Appleberry for sure. The school guidance counselor, he smelled of Peppermint Schnapps everyday by lunch, so Alan was sure not to send any impressionable students his way past eleven. He would be too apt to give the kid a pull. Perhaps he could visit him after this meeting. It's not like he'd get fired. The district would only be open a few more weeks. Why hire an interim principal? Not even the Department of Education was that dense.
"All I'm saying is that maybe you should be concentrating on saving your money rather than wasting it on this project."
"Some of us, Mr. Donahue, did not get into teaching for its fiduciary rewards."
That was right; he wouldn't get fired. Not yet anyway. So why did he care what he spent the district's money on? Who needed a prom? Most of the kids didn't go, and the seniors' banquet was more of a grim reminder of who didn't graduate than a celebration of those who did. Besides, if he could just get her to shut up about it, it would make the last remaining weeks of the semester that much easier to deal with.
"Fine," he said. "Whatever. I'll find the cash."
"You won't regret this, Mr. Donahue. Thank you."
Ms. Redtree stood and hurried out of his office before he could change his mind. He turned in his chair and stared out the window at the tattered yard. Years before it had been the football field, but the bleachers had long ago been torn down, the scraps probably dragged to homes for firewood. Now the yard was grated with limestone gravel and spotted with cracked red clay. That's where they would end up having the Land Run. He could see it then, all sixty-seven of his students lined up with Radio Flyers with sheets draped over them, their covered wagons, waiting for some damn fool to blow a whistle so they could mark out territory that had once been promised to the displaced tribes—their ancestors. It'd be sad if the irony wasn't lost on all those kids.
Alan lived just outside of Pawhuska where a tree line backed up into some rolling hills. The woods were intertwined with post oaks and blackjack and Indian grass. Limestone bedded streams, tributaries to Bluestem Lake, and murky water trickled through creeks where very little, if anything, swam. Whitetails pranced in gullies and squirrels skittered through the underbrush and avocets nested in branches. Every once in a while, a rifle shot would echo over the treetops. At night, coyotes howled at the moon like scavengers. It was a place Alan loved—he hunted big game, deer and mountain lion, the occasional wild boar. He would fish big mouth at the lake and camp with friends so that he could drink beer without the PTA finding out. For the past thirty years there hadn't been a week gone by that he hadn't spent some time out there. It was a land he knew well. He knew the smell of the dirt. He knew every tree by name. He knew its story. In 1835, the federal government had guaranteed it to the Cherokee by the Treaty of New Echota. It didn't matter the Osage already called the land home. War broke out constantly. Not in the grand terms learned in history books. There weren't large massacres or battles fought by legions of warriors in open fields. Hundreds didn't die in hand-to-hand combat. Instead, cattle and horses were stolen. Men were murdered one or two at a time. Crops destroyed. Subterfuge and mayhem.
Remnants of those times trickled down to today. Legends mostly. Since Amber's disappearance, the one most prevalent in Alan's mind was of the Little People. Before the wars, stories had abounded. Short, squatty men who could fly and played pranks on villagers, they hid personal belongings, a prized beaded necklace, or new moccasins, giggling and stamping around a hunter alone in the woods. After the Cherokee relocation, the stories turned malevolent. Warlords and chiefs learned they could use the legend as psychological warfare. They perpetuated that the Little People would steal the young of those who committed crimes against other tribes. During the night, scouts would kidnap the children of rival communities, and a day or two later they would find their young hanged from a redwood tree.
The largest mass kidnapping in American history took place on Alan's land. More than fifty children were taken and later found not a few miles into the woods, dismembered into several pieces, arms and legs and heads strewn about the underbrush. That was in 1839. A few years back, Alan had found a little shrine where the bodies had been found. He had no idea who'd built it. It wasn't much: a group of large stones piled atop one another, blocks of slate that reached about twenty feet high. Every few weeks or so he'd go out there and just sit. It was peaceful out there. He wouldn't be troubled by worldly things, his students' failing test scores, their rising dropout rate, the state's threat to shut down the school. He would simply sit in a lawn chair and listen to the sounds of the woods, sometimes dozing off. In those few moments between sleep and waking, he would think he could hear the little pitter-patter of footsteps, the Little People coming in close to pull one of their pranks. It had to be them. Everything was just too goddamn funny.
The teachers weren't even showing up to school anymore. Substitutes came in, his students' grandparents, who'd seen every last rerun M*A*S*H had to offer and were thrilled to have an excuse to get out of the nursing home. Between classes, he would share a little snort with a few of them as he passed them in the hallway. Why the hell not? They needed a little excitement in their lives. One of the few who still showed, though, was Ms. Redtree. The district had already started shipping out desks and chalkboards and projectors, storing them for use in the Bartlesville Alternative Academy come next fall, so Ms. Redtree was having class outside each day, lecturing about the Trail of Tears as the children were gnawed raw by mosquitoes. Alan and Blinky, an old geezer who volunteered to watch gym class from nine to eleven each morning, sipped from paper cups and watched on like spectators who couldn't afford a ticket. Freeloaders most would call them.
Ms. Redtree had rolled out an old whiteboard into the courtyard where the students gathered and smoked Pall Malls between classes. She diagramed the southern United States, showing where and how far the Cherokee and other southern tribes had to walk back in the 1830s, driven by gunpoint from their homes. She wrote fractions on the board, most notably 4,000/15,000. 4,000 had died on the trail. They were buried along riverbanks and at tree lines without stone or façade to mark them. Some were cast out into rivers, rocks tied to their arms and legs so they would sink. Others were simply left by the trail, the soldiers too busy to stop and dispose of the body. Yet these were simple, stale facts to the students, not the tragic history of their ancestors' fate. They would need to regurgitate it on a state exam at the end of the school year, but then they were free to forget it and focus on the importance of how to throw rocks at the Santa Fe railroad cars that ambled past, at least during good times when the oil rigs still chugged along. If not, they were forced to pick up cans along the road and take them to the recycling plant in Bartlesville so that they could collect change for food money. Regardless, they had more important things to do than learn from their teacher.
To mark the end of period, Susan, a lithe girl with cheekbones like cue balls, stood and bounced on her legs like a gymnast unfolding out of a cartwheel.
"Criminal," Blinky said. "Only time I ever get an erection is when I stare at underage girls."
"Jesus, Blinky. You can't tell me those sorts of things."
He snorted. "I'm just saying. It's nice to feel something down there every once in a while. Most of the time I'm afraid the twig is dead." He took a drink from his cup, the wine staining his lips merlot purple. "Tell me," he said. "You ever get with that Amber girl? The one that's missing."
"Where'd you hear that?" Alan asked.
"I wouldn't blame you if you did," Blinky continued. "Honestly, I don't see how you restrain yourself sometimes with all this young tail walking around here."
"Seriously, Blinky. Where'd you hear that?"
Blinky shrugged. "Around," he said. "People talk. Half the time it's bullshit."
"And the other half?"
He shrugged again. "Just watered-down bullshit."
The class disbursed. Ms. Redtree tried to round them back into the school, but most of them, the boys anyway, scattered to the parking lot where they would climb into their trucks and find a secluded place to smoke some pot. Used to, Alan would try to stop this. Now he didn't see the point. He even had half a mind to join them.
"Another day in the books," Blinky said. "See you tomorrow." He patted Alan on the shoulder before parting, almost a consoling gesture. Yes, it seemed to say, there will be a tomorrow. I'm truly sorry for that.
Alan wandered into the school to gather his things so he could head home and try to find the strength to heat up a frozen chicken fried steak instead of having a dinner, for the third night in a row, that consisted of sunflower seeds and scotch. The halls were thin with students. Since he'd been teaching, the dropout rate had climbed exponentially. For every student who graduated, four dropped out. They weren't bad kids by any means. Most ended up needing to work in order to support their families, who, for whatever reason, didn't qualify for welfare benefits or had been swindled out of their social security or had become disabled from mesothelioma poisoning from the old tire factory out on Hwy 80. The kids wound up working for the county underage, laying asphalt and welding old bridges. It was illegal to hire anyone under 18, but no one complained. There wasn't much of a workforce around here anymore. If the kids couldn't do it, it wouldn't get done.
As Alan gathered his papers—his résumé and last Sunday's crossword—someone knocked on the wall outside his office. It was Sheriff Whetsel, looking, it seemed, for a place to spit tobacco juice. He was a surly man now, gruff and with a short temper. Alan remembered him as Jeff, though, a cranky kid who'd whined every time an essay was assigned.
"What can I do for you, Sheriff?" Alan asked.
He motioned with his hand as though he was drinking an imaginary glass of water. Alan grabbed an empty water bottle from his desk and handed it to the sheriff, who unscrewed the cap and spit into it. Black liquid slid down the edge of the bottle, tiny remnants of tobacco sticking to the clear plastic.
"Had a few questions for you, Mr. Donahue," he said, "about the missing girl."
Alan motioned for the sheriff to take a seat, and he did, slouching the way teenagers would when in trouble.
"Not sure how much I can help," Alan said. "She didn't have any enemies that I know of. Wasn't bullied. Had her problems at home like any other kid her age, but I never thought she'd run away."
"Eyewitnesses put you at the scene when she disappeared," the sheriff said. "Some say they even saw you with her, but you didn't stick around to give a statement."
Alan shook his head.
"Seems odd for a prominent member of the community, the high school principal, to leave the scene of the crime, don't you think? Especially since you knew the girl."
"To be fair," Alan said, "I didn't know she was missing at the time. Or that it was a crime scene."
"Did you see her while in the store?"
"Yes," Alan said.
"Did you speak with her?"
"And what did you two talk about?"
Lies. The lies they should tell. The importance of keeping their mouths shut. Anything but the truth, that it had happened after school when Amber came by the office to talk about her trouble with her mother, how she'd been drinking too much and how she was dating some guy who worked for Phillips 66 over in Bartlesville and who Amber thought might be a pervert. He'd just learned that the school was going to be shut down, and although Alan's students had always been asexual creatures to him, he was mired in a four-day drunk, and she had great legs, legs like a track star, legs that could wrap around his body twice, the taste and color of warm honey, not that that was an excuse, but on that day his blood pressure rose and his head swam and he felt a warm tingle down in his groin that he hadn't felt in years. She peered up at him and though she didn't fight his touch, she didn't welcome it either. She slipped her arms through her shirt and covered her breasts with her hands, and as he went to touch them, he knew he should stop, that what he was doing was wrong, but he couldn't—it just felt so right.
Alan shrugged. "School," he said. "She was having problems in history class and wanted to know if I could recommend a tutor."
Alan shook his head.
"She didn't follow you out into the parking lot? You didn't take her somewhere?"
"Jesus, Jeff. No."
The sheriff plucked tobacco from his tongue and rubbed it in between his fingers, smudging the tips a juicy black. "Sure, sure," he said. "I, for one, believe you. There's just the rumors and all. The fact that you were nowhere to be found. That you might've been the last person who spoke with her. That when you did find out she was missing, you didn't come give a statement voluntarily. All strange, Mr. Donahue. I think it was you who taught me that if it quacks like a duck, walks like a duck, then it's a duck."
"I don't remember teaching you that at all. It was history class, if you remember."
"Might've been someone else. High school's all a blur now." He grinned a yellow-stained grin. He slapped his knees and leaned forward and stood. "Well," he said. "If you think of anything…"
"Certainly," Alan said. He pointed to where the door should've been.
Alan took to drinking more than he should have; though, he didn't blame himself considering the circumstances: his school shutting down, impending joblessness, Amber. It was her that troubled him the most. He couldn't stop thinking about her. It got to the point he was even dreaming about her. The one he had most often, they were sitting in the bed of a pickup out by Bluestem Lake, this brown and murky reservoir outside the Osage reservation, and they cuddled like lovers and looked up at the stars. Soon, they began to make out, and she started to pant, and he could feel his blood pressure rise, himself getting aroused. She would pull away from him and smile and open her mouth up as wide as she could. She would then start to pull out her teeth, one by one, until all she had left were these bloody, pockmarked gums, hands filled with red-stained teeth. He would wake up screaming, and for a moment he thought he needed to go see someone, a doctor, a therapist, somebody, but he knew that wouldn't help—only seeing her again would.
So he volunteered for the search party. Amber's father was there, and as soon as Alan had showed, he stared at him suspiciously, no doubt having heard the rumors, the sexual trysts, the unlawful humping in the dark library, the theory that he'd strangled her so she'd keep her mouth shut. Amber's father gave the police a sweater she'd often worn, an ugly little thing that caused the dogs to bark in anticipation when they'd gotten a whiff. They started at the IGA and then walked east down the highway, calling out Amber's name every few yards. Of course, no one answered back. The search party sauntered behind the dogs, seemingly resigned to the fact this search would be fruitless like all the rest. Even Amber's father appeared hopeless. His face was long and bruised and yellowed, like he hadn't slept in weeks, but he trudged forward, perhaps convinced that they'd find her alive any minute, perhaps all hope gone and merely searching out of obligation. Alan wouldn't have been surprised either way. It had been weeks since she'd gone missing, and the police didn't have any leads. But people believe what they believe, oftentimes despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
After a few miles, they came up on a dirt road cut out from the tree line. It looked like it had hardly been used. A fallen tree blocked the entrance, and a rusted gate had been pulled back. It was now warped and oxidized to the point of disrepair. The dogs stopped in front of it, sniffing the air, and then barreled down the trail. About two hundred yards down the dirt road, the dogs stopped again. They barked and they howled and they pointed west toward the woods. It was dark in there, the underbrush thick and dense. They all stared for a few moments, the dogs barking, the woods, however, silent. Only a stiff breeze could be heard, blowing above the canopy.
"Amber!" her dad yelled. "Amber, are you out there?"
Not even an echo answered back.
The deputies let loose the dogs and followed behind, sprinting through the underbrush. Soon, they came upon the smell. It was putrid, debilitating even, something that Alan would never be able to forget. It was like it crawled up his nose. Like it got right up inside him and twisted his insides. One man stopped and began to vomit. Another started to gag but kept running. Amber's father just wailed.
They found her in a little clearing. She was naked, and she was tied to a post, her wrists shackled with a rope. She had been there a while and was hardly recognizable anymore. What remained were just dried tissue and muscle and blood, the color and texture of beef jerky. Maggots crawled over her, and flies shrouded her skull. A coyote or a wild dog had eaten her eyes and face. Around her was a collection of bones. Leg bones, it looked like, from cows and deer. Tied to the post above her head was a bison skull. On her stomach was a picture of a small person, drawn in her own blood.
Eventually the last day of school, for the year and for the town forever, came. Hardly anyone showed. Maybe ten or twelve students. Susan was there. Blinky was there. Ms. Redtree, along with dozens of covered wagons fashioned from Radio Flyers and bed sheets. Ms. Redtree lined each of the wagons up in a row behind a black line she'd spray-painted onto the red clay. There were about thirty or so parcels of land marked out by hula-hoops and wooden rods lodged into the soil. These represented the 160 acres the settlers could claim as their own. Several had flags draped from the top, the ones that had already been staked out by the Sooners, the settlers who had entered the territory illegally and hidden out before the land run officially opened on April 22, 1889.
The Land Run had started on high noon that day. An estimated 50,000 settlers lined up to take part. People who had decided to start anew someplace else, who had, for whatever reason, decided to abandon their birthplaces for the promises of the West. A fitting tribute to the end of the school year, Alan thought. The underclassmen would start a new school come next fall. The teachers and administrators, like Ms. Redtree and himself, would be forced to find employment in other districts or new professions altogether. Most of them would be unqualified for anything else and be forced to take jobs they hadn't worked since college, delivering pizzas or assisting a plumber. Honest work. Work that they shouldn't, but would nonetheless, be ashamed of. It took a lot of courage to do a thing like that. And it wasn't a normal kind of courage. Not the kind where people acted on impulse, running into a burning building to save a child or to shield a friend from a grenade. This took aforethought, a premeditated and detailed plan, execution. It was a type of courage, Alan was afraid, he didn't have.
To start the reenactment, Ms. Redtree fired a cap gun into the air. A little burst of smoke spewed from the barrel, and the children loafed out of the starting gate. They didn't rush or fight over the parcels of land. Instead, they malingered, dragging the wagons behind them and shielding their eyes from the harsh summer sun. Ms. Redtree slouched in disappointment at their obvious disinterest. Alan wasn't surprised. Here these kids were, following orders because they didn't know they no longer had to. As of three o'clock, when Ms. Redtree had fired the cap gun, the Pawhuska school system no longer existed, and along with its dissolution, he and she were stripped of their power. But here they were, Alan and Blinky and Ms. Redtree and all the kids, pulling red wagons and claiming imaginary land stripped from their rightful, imaginary owners, afraid that if they disobeyed, the Little People would come, and take from them all that they held dear.