2 A.M. and I find myself starting another sleepless night in Rolling Plains, Illinois. It's been hard, adjusting to semi-rural life after living in the chaos that is New York City. I can't even practice law anymore; now I spend my days teaching English at a nearby high school. I feel guilty every day when I step into my classroom; here I am with a fabricated degree teaching kids. But they don't care. They think Ms. Brooks is a pretty cool teacher, even if she is a little uptight.
Ms. Brooks. Katherine Brooks. Me. I've spent two years in this quaint town, and I still find myself reacting whenever I hear shouts of "Alex!", even if they're not directed my way. Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever stop, if I'll ever get used to it. I don't think I will. Living like this, living a lie, it's like living in someone else's skin, and I'm always itching to get out. But until Velez is dead, I'm condemned here; condemned to live with this eternal itch, no matter how much I try to scratch it away.
Today is a gray day. I woke up feeling pretty good, exulting in the aftermath of the first real sleep I've had in years. And then I saw the paper. "Cartel leader Cesar Velez found dead in a dumpster." I sunk into my chair, forced down by the flood of memories. Memories of Alex lying on the ground, unmoving, eyes glassy. Memories of me holding her shoulder, trying to desperately to stop the bleeding, willing the blood to go back in her body. That night, I spent countless hours sitting on my bed, staring at my hands, at somebody else's life stained on them. I couldn't bring myself to wash them, to wash myself of her.
Sometimes I swear I can hear and feel her. I remember a time, about a month after she died, I could swear I heard her sob my name and I could feel her finger on my cheek, stroking it softly. It's moments like those that make me think she's still alive somewhere. But I know she's not every time I go and lay a flower on her grave.
"Liv." A voice breaks me out of my reverie. "C'mon, we gotta go." Elliot pats my back, urging me to get up.
"What is it now?" I pull on my coat and we walk briskly out the door.
"35 year old male, found dead in an apartment with his pants down. CSU said it looked like someone had tried to cut his heart out." Elliot fills me in on the details while we drive, but I'm not really listening. My thoughts are still with Alex, the life she could have had if Cesar Velez had died two years ago instead of today.
Ninth period English is always a struggle. The kids are antsy and distracted, and today is no different.
"Ms. Brooks, do you have a boyfriend?"
"Ms. Brooks, where did you live before this?"
"I'm your favorite, right?"
"Can't you just let us out early today? Pleeeeease?"
I can't help smiling. "Okay, how about this: if you guys pay attention today, I'll give you the last ten minutes to do whatever you want."
Roger, the class clown, pipes up. "How 'bout the last 40 minutes?" he asks, knowing full well that the class period is only 40 minutes long.
I give him a look, smiling, and turn to the board to start as the door opens. In walks Mr. Collins, the school principal, looking unusually grim. He motions for me to join him outside. With a "be good" to the class, I follow him out.
He sighs and looks down, as if he'd rather be doing anything but this. "Katherine, there's no easy way to say this, so I'll just tell you." He sighs again. He looks ten years older than he did yesterday. "Jack is dead. He…he was murdered," he says, the hard line of his mouth turning down at the corners, betraying his nearness to tears.
I've gone pale and numb. "What? What did you say?" I'm certain I didn't hear him right.
He looks pained. "Please, don't make me say it again."
I sway alarmingly, my body sagging under the weight of the world on my shoulders. Mr. Collins catches me and propels me to a nearby bench, resting his hand on my back in a comforting touch.
I look over at him. "Jack? Jack Dawson? My Jack?" I have to make sure. He nods curtly in response.
I suppress the wail growing in my throat, blink back tears, sniffle, and get up to go back to my class.
Mr. Collins shoots out of his seat. "Where are you going?"
"I have a classroom full of students waiting for me."
"Hugh, somebody has to break it to these kids. I want it to be me."
He looks at my hand on the knob, then nods slowly, looking defeated.
I take a steadying breath and open the door. The kids quiet down, and I sit myself on top of my desk. I see their heads turn, whispering; I usually stand. They've never seen me this informal.
I give them a strained smile. "We're not going to have class today." A cheer goes up that quickly dies out when they notice the look on my face. "Guys, I want to talk to you about something very serious." My voice cracks on the last word, and I take a moment to gather myself. The kids are positively terrified by now. "Kids, Mr. Dawson…Mr. Dawson is dead. He died," I clarify.
A lone voice breaks out. "What do you mean, he died?"
"What do you think she means, dumbass?" another student counters. I'm too sad to even reprimand his language. I know Jack was one of the most popular teachers. Every student loved him, and he was very fond of his kids. This is such a tight-knit community. I know everyone is devastated.
"How?" someone asks simply.
I look up. It's Anne, my straight-A student who has never uttered a word before now. If it's possible, my heart breaks even more. I look her in the eye. "I don't know, and I don't think I could tell you if I did."
The rest of the period passes in awkward, overwhelming, stifling silence, with quiet reminders of Jack's impact plastered on the faces of these kids. My heart breaks as I see Roger sitting quietly, his normally feisty face covered in tears, his body quivering as he tries to regain control.
The bell rings and everyone flinches. Nobody makes a move to get up until I quietly remind them that my car isn't big enough to fit everyone. This elicits a laugh, albeit a very feeble one. As each kid walks out the door, I stop and give them a hug, as much for my comfort as for theirs.
I want to go back to the time when life was nice and easy, when I actually got out of bed for a reason. Back before my world ended for the first time.