I teach at a small school in a mountainous region in the United States. On good years, we have maybe twenty students grades kindergarten through eighth. I handle the littles, my husband handles the older kids. It’s not a job you take if you want a secure lifestyle with a luxurious retirement, but it is one you take when you care about the future of children.
Alma was a first grader and very bright. I ended up having to give her the second grader’s books by the end of the first quarter and knew by Christmas she’d likely be caught up to the fourth graders. She always raised her hand and never spoke out of turn.
But she was also a bit strange.
Alma rarely spoke in general, preferring just to remain in the corner coloring rather than participate in activities or talk to her friends. And after a while I came to realize that she didn’t seem to have any friends at all. The other kids didn’t pick on her, far from it. They didn’t even seem to realize she was there. And I’m embarrassed to say even I occasionally overlooked her. Other kids just needed my attention more.
But then we had Parent’s Day.
Parent’s Day happened every fall. We invited the parents of the children to tour the school and talk about current projects, we’d order pizza and play games on the playground. It was always a great time.
At least one parent would always try to make it, and if they couldn’t, grandparents were just as welcome. But Alma arrived alone and didn’t make space for her parents at her desk… and that worried me.
I excused myself from talking with Brent’s parents and made my way over to her.
She looked up from her drawing, a very cheerful picture of smiling dogs. “Yes, Mrs. Riggs?” She said, her voice so soft I could barely hear it.
I made a bit of a show to look around. “Where’s your mom or dad? Will they be arriving in time for lunch? It’s pizza lunch, after all!”
“They don’t want to come. They don’t like going into the school.”
That took me by shock. After all, Alma was such a bright child.
“Oh. How about your grandma? Or grandpa?”
“I don’t have any.”
I’m used to how children state things like that so matter of factly. Still, my heart ached for poor Alma, all alone while seeing everyone with their parents. I smiled and gestured to my desk. “How about you sit with me today then? I’m a bit lonely eating by myself after all.“
“Thank you, Mrs. Riggs, but if I sit there, I can’t see them,” Alma said as pointed out the window.
Frowning, I looked as well. Just across the field was the thick forest, full of gorgeous pine trees that always made the school smell a little woodsy.
“Who can’t you see, Alma?”
Alma shrugged as she folded her picture in half and put it in her bookbag.
“My parents, Mrs. Riggs.”
During the whole day, Alma hardly budged from her spot, consistently looking out the window. Occasionally I’d see a flash of a grin across her face, I even caught her waving once.
There wasn’t anyone out there of course. And although it broke my heart that her parents willingly deceived her like that, I didn’t tell her to stop. It made her happy after all.
The more I watched Alma, the more things I found out about this strange and lonely girl. During morning recess, she would go sit on the swings, and stay there the entire time while chattering to herself. I discreetly listened in a few times, and I made out a few names of imaginary friends. Luca, Naomi, Samson, Goliath. She’d tell them about all she was learning, about how fun math was and how she couldn’t wait for lunch, as Luca seemed to always pack them. Her lunches would always consist of the same thing- a piece of bread and a slice or two of salami. She never seem like she was starving, but it wouldn’t hurt to throw the girl a bologna sandwich or an apple.
I lost my temper when her parents skipped out on the parent teacher conference.
It was nearing the end of the first semester, snow covered the ground, everyone was excited for Christmas and winter break, and I made time to talk with the parents of each of my students. I’d work with their schedules, I even had to have a few before school. It never bothered me. I just wanted to help my students the best I could.
However, whenever I’d ask Alma about her parents, she’d dodge the question or turn down whatever time I offered. I was beginning to run out of patience when finally she said that Friday night would work.
I prepared myself for whatever could come my way. Inattentive, always on their phones. Drug addicts. Or just generally rude and sassy.
I wasn’t prepared for the no show.
Alma marched up to my desk and sat down, folding her hands. I looked around.
“Where’s your mother?” I asked.
Alma grinned, that grin a child gets when they think they figured something out. She set on the desk an old fashioned tape recorder, one that was a little beat up and scuffed around the edges, but it worked when Alma clicked record.
“They can’t make it, Mrs. Riggs. But here, you tell them what you need them to know, and I’ll take this to them!”
I was flabbergasted. For a second, I actually leaned forward and began. “Well… actually there’s not much to…” I couldn’t do it. I turned it off.
“I’m sorry, Alma, but your parents have to be here in person.”
Alma’s shoulders sagged and her expression fell. “But…”
“No buts, Alma.” I was putting my foot down. “They might have questions for me that I’ll have to answer, and I have ones for them as well. I’ll do whatever I need to, Alma. Should we do this at your home? If your parents can’t make it to the school-”
Alma jumped like she’d been struck, rapidly shaking her head no. “No, I’m… I’m sorry, Mrs. Riggs, but you… you can’t come to my home. You can’t.”
My mind began to wander to much more disturbing conclusions.
“Are your parents hurting you, Alma?”
Alma rapidly shook her head no, but I could still see so much fear in her eyes. “My parents l-love me Mrs. Riggs… but you can’t come to my house. They won’t like it. They’ll get angry…” Alma shoved her tape recorder in her bag. “I can’t say anything else. I’m sorry, Mrs. Riggs.”
And like a wisp of smoke in the wind, she had fled from my classroom.
I looked outside and watched Alma’s small form running across the field, onto the path that wound through the forest.
And then I grabbed my coat and my flashlight to follow her.
It was bitterly cold, the night already starting to darken the sky. But I am a teacher. And a teacher doesn’t just let something like this slip by.
The snow crunched under my shoes as I walked through the forest. I knew Alma couldn’t have gotten far, but I avoided turning on my flashlight. I didn’t want to spook her.
Thankfully, it was easy enough to make out the pair of tiny footprints in the waning light. The footprints turned off the path sharply and past a bush. I pushed past it to see a well-worn trail. I clicked on the flashlight.
Now I could make out two pairs of footprints. Alma’s tiny shoes and a pair of large boots, the kind a man would wear. I knelt down to examine them, tracing my fingers along the treads.
A branch snapped behind me and I spun around, dropping the flashlight when I saw a dark shape behind me.
The dark shape that was just a giant, black dog.
An enormous Tibetan mastiff, his shaggy head cocked to the side as he looked back at me. I sighed with relief and rested my hand on my chest. Alma did love to draw dogs, perhaps this one belonged to her.
“Hello there. I’m looking for a student of mine, I don’t suppose you could find her?”
The mastiff ‘wuffed’ before treading off, and I was once again alone in the forest. I shook my head. “Silly me, talking to dogs,” I murmured before turning around and starting to follow the footprints.
The tree’s branches slowly closed over me and I felt like I was walking into the mouth of a beast. The thorny brush catching my ankles were its teeth.
I had the feeling I was being watched.
I flashed my light through the trees, looking to see if perhaps that dog was back. My light flashed along a lumpy shape in a branch and I moved it back.
The creature in the trees stared back at me, its red eyes reflecting red from my flashlight.
I dropped the light, my jaw dropped. The light wasn’t focused on the beastly thing anymore, but I could make out its silhouette and the faint glow of its baseball sized eyes.
Then it screamed and dived above my head.
I threw myself to the ground, hitting the snow bank. Its claws carved above my brow and then it flew away, laughing like a shrill hyena.
I rolled over, only to hear my heart beat thudding in my ears. I reached up to see how bad the cut was, feeling blood welling up in a slender cut.
“It… it was an owl. It was an owl.”
Even if it was shaped like a man and had a mouth full of spiny teeth. It was an owl.
It had to be an owl.
I stumbled down the path, my flashlight starting to flicker and brown out. I knew I had to go back. I’d have to return during the day, with the police, I resolved as I turned around. However, I didn’t think of the falling snow. The snow which had now hid my footprints, and I became lost.
I pulled my coat over my fingers, the cold causing them to ache. My flashlight flickered out and my heart sunk when it didn’t turn back on.
“No, no!” I shook it wildly about, whacked it a few times. Nothing. Night had fully set its claws in me and I was truly lost.
I felt my eyes start to water and my glasses began to fog over. I took them off to clean them.
The voice sounded like ice cracking on the river. I froze and spun around, lifting my glasses up. “Hello?”
I was tackled into the ground. I slammed my head on a rock, my vision nearly going black before it returned in a haze.
A face came into my blurry vision, sharp and cold, with glowing red eyes.
“Nosy. All of you.”
Thick, smelly saliva dripped onto my cheek.
“You can’t have her. We take care of her now. We thought you’d learn after the first two never returned. Now that number has to be four.”
I felt several sharp teeth brush my throat before I heard a scream.
“Papa! No! Please no, papa! That’s Mrs. Riggs!”
The man froze.
I heard a pair of small footsteps run up. “Papa, it’s not a social worker, it’s not like the man who followed me today! She’s my teacher! She’s just scared, papa, I didn’t bring her, I promise! Don’t hurt her!”
I had never heard Alma cry until now.
The man, her ‘papa’, drew away from me.
“Make her leave.”
Alma knelt beside me and took my hand. Her eyes were overflowing with tears, and she hiccuped as she apologized. “I-I’m so s-sorry, Mrs. Riggs! I’m so sorry!”
I reached up, touching her face.
“It’s… it’s okay, Alma. Can you get my phone? I hit my head, and I’m feeling very cold.”
“I have something better. Luca, here boy…”
Alma half lifted me onto the hairy, smelly animal, and it took me a second to realize that it was a dog.
I woke up in the hospital. I was dropped off in the early hours with a concussion and likely would’ve developed hypothermia if I’d been out there the whole night. The nurses had no idea who dropped me off. They’d just found me unconscious outside.
My coat was still covered in dog hair.
Now I watch Alma go home every day, from the windows.
And although if I’d blink I’d miss it, sometimes I see a pale man and a dog, waiting in the shade of the trees.