I peeled my name tag off the paper and slapped it on my chest as I entered Mrs. Hughes’ first grade classroom. Tagged. I was it. Mrs. Hughes was talking to the class over the whispers of the unicorn mother. She wasn’t actually a unicorn; that would be noteworthy. She was the creator of the famous unicorn cupcakes for her daughter’s birthday the year before. Her shaving of pretzel rods into horn shapes to be iced and dipped in colored sugar had been repinned thousands of times, making her a mythological creature in our town.
I stayed on the outskirts. Not because I didn’t like her, or the other moms who continued to talk while ignoring the teacher. I was pretty clear on the fact the unicorn was never going to like me. I’ve never thought of snacks as art. For Liv’s last birthday, I’d sent in brownies she’d helped me bake. The box kind.
Liv caught sight of me and beamed with pride. I waved to her, thankful for the reminder of why I subjected myself to elementary school field trips. The year before, the girl who was terrified of bridges had sat next to me as we’d crossed the Ben Franklin Bridge into Philadelphia. I thought I’d talked her through it, but by the time we hit land, she’d thrown up all over us.
I scanned the class for the little gephyrophobiac and stopped on the only man in the room. How I hadn’t seen him immediately was a bit terrifying. Had the Pinterest Princesses completely dulled my recognition of testosterone? He had my full attention now. He was tall, standing behind Allison Pratt. Broad shoulders, too. His hair was dark, slightly long, and pushed back from his face. Everything was dark about him. His hair, his eyebrows, and the just barely there beard and mustache. Everything but his eyes. They were a light green, and impossible to look away from. He had that wildcard factor. As if he could be an oral surgeon or a park ranger, and you wouldn’t have guessed or been shocked by either.
I recalled Liv telling me Allison’s dad was a police colonel. I knew she had part of that wrong, but he did possess that unmistakable I can make this the worst day of your life expression cops often had.
Colonel Pratt waited for the shock to pass from my face and put me at ease with a slight tip of his head while I imagined all the tickets a friendship with a police officer in my small town could get me out of.
The unicorn must have seen his gesture, because she rushed over to engage me in conversation. Or was it an interrogation? I was the stranger from out of town no one knew anything about, but God knew these people kept trying. “Hello, Meredith,” she said, placing her body in my line of sight. Forcing me to address her.
“Hi,” I said, trying to engage. It was always an enormous effort. “Excited to visit Philadelphia?” I went on the offensive.
“I’m exhausted. I was up all night hot-gluing our name tags.” She reached to the short-legged table next to us and picked up a lanyard with a piece of cardstock hanging from it. It had rocks and stones glued to it and “Mrs. Walsh” written in the center. I was pretty sure the unicorn hadn’t discovered masturbation.
“I…uh, actually got one from the office when I signed in.” I smiled and nodded my head as if this was the end of the conversation.
The unicorn reached up to my breast and ripped off my name tag. “Don’t be ridiculous! Here,” she said, and put the rock chain over my neck. She walked away, and Colonel Pratt silently laughed by the windows.
I held up my collar for the day and mouthed, where’s yours? To which he responded with more silent laughter. The teacher ended her speech about today’s rules, and Liv ran over and wrapped her arms around my waist. She squeezed me tight, and I instantly felt bad for the kids whose parents weren’t here. Liv was lucky I didn’t work.
My lunch was collected, and I was lined up and herded onto a school bus. Liv and her friends scored the back seats, and I took a small two-seater three rows up. It was close enough to deliver the evil eye if necessary, but far enough away to let her sniff freedom. The colonel sat catty-corner from me, and the unicorn took the seat next to him. She was still talking…always talking, that one. Until Mrs. Hughes asked if we would mind spreading out. The unicorn moved to the middle of the bus; the colonel didn’t move a muscle.
I placed my bag in the seat next to me. It was a two-seater for two little people and I made it my own. I searched through my bag for my earbuds as Mrs. Hughes yelled over the children that every seat needed to be filled, and the consolidation began. I pulled my bag onto my lap, dreading who would join me and praying they wouldn’t throw up on me before we arrived.
The colonel stood. He was the biggest person on the bus and yet he had a gentleness about him as he moved back and sat down next to me. I slid against the window, giving his shoulders the extra room they required. The sides of our thighs touched. In my mind it was more of a caress, and I couldn’t stop the sexual thoughts from racing through by head. I wonder if he likes to be on top. How big is he? Does he talk during sex?
I noted the wedding ring on his finger, and the unicorn taking her new seat with two little boys. She glared at me with the same disdain she reserved for the mothers who bought pre-packaged party invitations.
“You’re going to get us in trouble,” I whispered, and ignored the view from the front of the bus.
“Impossible.” He leaned toward me and let his legs flow into the aisle. He was clearly unconcerned with all of the judgment on the bus; his attitude was a dip in the ocean on a hot day. He smelled of some thick mix of mahogany and a fresh soap scent that only heightened his masculinity. I told myself it was the scent I was attracted to, not him. The way my heart raced with him next to me made me feel half-animal. “Besides, Tommy What’s-His-Name has already asked me three times if I’ve ever killed anyone. I figure the conversation will be better back here.”
I tried to hide how excited I was that he was there. I tried to hide it from myself and him. “Thanks. Liv told me you’re a colonel in the police army.”
He laughed at her boggled description. “Not quite.” He was a steel beam dipped in maple syrup. An innocent smile and sweet eyes atop an alarming physique.
“Have you ever killed anyone?”
He stopped moving and stared directly into my eyes. His were the color of water in a green glass, cool, and light.
He disarmed me.
“I’m Vince.” He held out his hand to me.
“Meredith.” I slipped my hand in his, and his warmth reminded me of the first time Tim Reynolds touched my breast in high school. He’d shaken my father’s hand when he’d picked me up and then had parked in the woods and slipped his hands up my shirt. I was safe with Tim. He was as honorable as he was aroused. I think he joined the marines after graduation. I hadn’t thought of him in at least ten years. I wondered what happened to him. I wondered if I was blushing.