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Chapter 19: The Absentees
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Stars Elementary School
Friday, January 3, 12:00:30 P.M.
Karen Marlow stared dully at the globules of milk dropping from the edge of the table, the table where just seconds ago Kevin and Kellie had been eating lunch. Or was it eons ago? With a low moan, she rose from the hard terrazzo floor and approached the table.
It looked just like a place where a group of 6-year-olds had been eating. Bits of food, Crusts of bread with the white centers eaten out, and small puddles of milk decorated its surface in a style familiar to any mother. A full container of milk had just been spilled near the center of the table and several sopping-wet napkins bore mute testimony that some effort had been made to control the small disaster. Most of it was dripping on the floor, however.
And then Karen looked down at the chairs. "Oh no . . . no . . ." She stood for several minutes, hugging her bosom and rocking slightly in cadence with her moans.
It had been the chairs which caused Karen to really break down. On each seat was a small mound of rumpled clothes, clothes no longer needed. Clothes no longer appropriate. Clothes several sizes-- many sizes too small. Slowly she knelt before the twins' chairs and buried her face in first one clothing pile and then the other. A distinctive active-child musk was all that was left of Kevin and Kellie.
Karen had no idea how long she had been kneeling there when she became aware of a person standing at her side with a gentle hand of comfort resting on her shoulder. She looked up into the tear-wet face of Miss Black, the twins' former teacher.
"Marcie, they're gone, just gone," she said catatonically. "I can't understand it but they're gone. What happened to my Kevin and my Kellie? What happened to all these other children? What happened to Martha Metz? It's all so, so unworldly . . ."
know, Mrs. Marlow," the young teacher replied brokenly, "and not only
Kevin and Kellie but every other child in my room is gone, all 31 of them."
The women stood with arms around each other and wept silently for several minutes. But then, Karen became aware that other people in the cafeteria had needs besides her. She wiped her eyes for a final time and looked out over the group in the large room. It seemed that most of the older students had somehow escaped the phenomenon which had snatched away her Kevin and Kellie. The staff, seated in an alcove on the far side of the cafeteria, seemed to be fairly intact, also. And every face was looking directly into hers. You're the principal, Mrs. Marlow. You're in charge here, they said mutely. Tell us what to do.
As she looked more closely, Karen could see that many of the remaining children were crying softly and quite a few teachers were coping with tears, too. But no one had left his seat and those who had been standing when it happened had quickly found chairs as soon as their bodies were released.
Karen wasn't sure she could speak but she cleared her throat and made an attempt. "Children . . . and teachers, I don't know any more about what happened here than you do but I'm sure we'll be finding out about it later. Right now, though, I think we need to know just exactly who is left here in the school. I want to compliment you on your excellent behavior so far and we still need everyone's cooperation in that way."
As Karen spoke the murmur of crying diminished as the children instinctively accepted their principal as the person most likely to bring some kind of sense and order to what had happened.
"I'm asking you to go back to your homerooms now. As I call your teacher's name, line up behind your teacher over here by the door and then walk quietly to your room. And teachers, when you get to your rooms, make a list of each student who reported for school this morning but is not here now. Any minute the phone is going to start ringing and cars will be roaring up the front drive, and I have no idea what I'm going to say to all those frantic parents.
"Oh, and don't worry about your trays. Just leave them on the table and they'll be taken care of later."
Anne Rafferty, the other first grade teacher, had moved to the front of the room to stand beside Karen. "Marcie and I seem to have l-l-lost all of our students, Mrs. Marlow. What do you want us to do?"
"I'm not sure, Anne, but I think a couple of the classroom teachers are missing, also. Why don't you and Marcie just stay close and I may need you to do some substituting."
Karen turned back to the group. "All right, children, we'll start with the second grade. Miss Johnson's class."
A gasp flowed across the room as 12 of Dorothy Johnson's 28 second-graders rose from their seats and lined up behind their teacher. At a nod from the principal, they filed out of the cafeteria like zombies and moved down the hall. The other second grade class was similarly stricken. But as the cafeteria exodus moved up through the grades, more and more children rose to line up behind the teacher whose name had been called. Whoever or whatever had taken a fancy to the students of Sever Stars Elementary had a strong preference for the younger ones.
Finally the cafeteria was empty and Karen turned to the food service workers still standing behind the service line. "When you clear off the tables, be very careful not to disturb the personal belongings you'll see on some of the chairs, especially the ones here in the front. As the parents come in, I want them to come down here and personally pick out their child's things." The solemn-faced workers nodded in agreement and Karen turned and walked over to the closet.
As she removed a plastic trash bag from the closet, Karen had a horrible thought. There aren't bodies which can be given a decent burial! Nothing but clothes. Swiftly but gently she gathered her children's things and placed them in the plastic bag, including the shoes and socks which were on the floor. With a final anguished sob, she looked around the room one more time and then left. The bag was slung over her shoulder like some irreverent Santa Claus.
The phone was ringing when she got to her office. For a split second she wondered why Martha wasn't on the job. Then, with a sad shake of her head the principal answered it herself.
"Seven Stars School. Mrs. Marlow speaking."
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