Myka Bering lives in Boone, Wisconsin. She is a second-grade teacher. She moved to Boone two years ago, when she could no longer stomach the Secret Service… she was supposed to teach middle-school literature, but they needed a second-grade teacher instead. Desperately. So she is doing the job and becoming qualified for it at the same time… education is, after all, one of the many things she studied for a while. And she does like children, particularly at this age, when they’re just beginning to learn so many of their truly essential thinking skills, when addition and subtraction and even words they already know, like “imagination,” become revelations when they can understand them, read them, on their own.
Myka Bering lives in Boone, Wisconsin, because it’s a wrenching change from her life before. That was what she’d wanted: the biggest change possible. So when she was offered a teaching job—and she’s still not entirely sure why the offer came her way, but she’s trying not to think so much these days—she jumped. Away from D.C., away from the Secret Service, away from all the memories, of Sam and of failure, that would not stop battering her.
Myka Bering lives in Boone, Wisconsin, which is so small that it has only one school. It’s divided into separate campuses, one for the elementary kids and one for the upper grades. General faculty meetings are raucous affairs: too many people with too many different points of view. Myka thinks that they should have separate meetings, just as they do separate campuses.
She thinks that until the day she doesn’t think it anymore: the day when they bring in someone to replace Mrs. Muldowney, the high school literature teacher, who was going to retire at the end of the year anyway but had to move to Florida abruptly for some family emergency. Myka had been hoping to take over that position in the next school year. Yet in this instant, she’s changed her mind about that too, because she is sitting in the back of the conference room as the principal introduces them all to Boone Consolidated’s new high school literature teacher, Emily Lake.
She isn’t even officially introduced to Emily Lake at the faculty meeting, but she can barely concentrate on her students the next day. Because Emily Lake is beautiful, almost heart-stoppingly so. Myka’s heart clenches even now, when she should be paying attention to show-and-tell, just thinking of that impossibly dark hair and those dark-yet-lit-from-within eyes. (Myka’s not a huge fan of the flat Midwestern accent, but if that’s Emily Lake’s only fault…) Myka doesn’t believe in love at first sight. She really doesn’t. That isn’t what this is. This is… captivation at first sight? Yes, something like that.
So she is listening with only half an ear as Adelaide goes on about how her mother gave her this bracelet, which is a family heirloom, and also her father said she could have a lizard as a pet very soon if she promises to take very very good care of it, but not an iguana because they need a very carefully controlled environment. Myka marvels a little that Adelaide can reproduce the words “heirloom” and “controlled environment,” but she is quite verbal, this one. Myka calls her her “top chatterbox,” which is a compliment. Adelaide’s mother, a very smart, agreeable woman, had laughed at that during their latest parent-teacher conference and asked if Myka would mind if she got it printed on a T-shirt for Adelaide.
When Myka finally meets Emily Lake, in the faculty lounge the following week, she thinks that she should get one of those “top chatterbox” T-shirts for herself: she simply cannot stop talking. She babbles on and on, about the school and the town and the fact that there’s only one movie theater and maybe ten restaurants, four of which are Italian, and she doesn’t shut up until Emily says, almost severely, “Myka, would you like to go out with me?”
They go, that evening, to one of the four Italian restaurants. Myka has no idea what she is eating, or even if she is eating; she knows only that Emily is looking at her earnestly, and talking to her about books, and mesmerizing her so that she has not thought about her former life, she realizes, since that afternoon. It is a new record.
Another new record is set when Myka takes Emily home with her—she can’t imagine not doing so—and their bodies are intertwined almost before Myka can unlock her door. It is hours later before they even think about sleep. Myka knows they will both be exhausted at school tomorrow; she is thrilled beyond measure that this is the reason, that they will share their fatigue, the circles under their eyes, the aches of their unrecovered muscles, as secrets between them.
“You’re amazing,” Myka breathes. It is the most true thing she has ever said.
“I’m… just me,” Emily says. “You’re the one who swept me off my feet.”
“That can’t possibly be true,” Myka says, happy that the darkness of the bedroom hides her blush. No, she thinks: I am just happy.
“It’s true,” Emily says, in that serious way she has. “You were so sweet, talking to me, explaining everything, and suddenly all I wanted to do was kiss you.”
“Kiss me now,” Myka says. “Please.”
It happens so fast. There are moments when Myka thinks it’s happening too fast, but then she will look at Emily, and Emily will look at her, and they’ll start laughing, and Myka knows that it’s exactly the right person at exactly the right time, and that can never happen too fast. Only too slowly. And she is afraid, for some reason, that if she goes slowly, it will not happen at all.
Myka bought a new teaching wardrobe when she moved to Boone, but it took her some time to realize that it was all black and taupe and brown and gray, just like her Secret Service suits, broken only by the occasional beige. Light beige, she tells herself now, laughing. Because Emily, who now lives in Myka’s house, has gone through her closet and has made faces at the gloom and is making Myka wear colors like she does, not that they can share clothes, because Myka is so much taller. But they go shopping together, and Emily tells Myka that if she won’t buy that emerald sweater, Emily is buying it for her. And will forcibly put it on her. They have a “threat or promise” discussion on that point.
They take a cooking class together at the pretentiously named “Boone Culinary Institute” because they happen to meet one of the instructors at the mall during a shopping excursion. Myka semi-recognizes the father of one of her students, she can’t quite remember which one, as he enters a classroom down the hall from theirs. They make baba ghanouj and take it home. They agree that it is terrible. Neither can cook, even when guided by the instructor, but neither cares. They are happy.
Until the hour when a beefy man shows up at their door. It is night, and they are about to go to bed. He says he is Secret Service, and Myka is immediately suspicious. His badge, though… his badge is authentic, as far as she can judge (anymore). What can he possibly want with her? She left that life behind, and she has had no contact with her former coworkers, her boss, anyone, since her final debrief.
But he isn’t here for Myka. He’s here for Emily. “I don’t understand,” Emily says. “Does this have something to do with the accident?”
Emily has told Myka that she was in a terrible car accident, one that left her alone in the world, one that took many of her memories and left her with only the barest outline of who she was before. Myka had understood this quite well; she in turn told Emily about Sam and her life before, and how that, too, felt like a terrible accident, one that turned her, Myka, into someone who barely remembered who she was. They had bonded over this: two refugees from violent pasts. Two refugees starting to piece together a future.
There are words about Emily’s safety, something about who was involved in the accident, but all Myka can hear is that Emily is being taken away. From Boone, but more importantly, from Myka. Emily asks this agent whether Myka can come too, but that is, apparently, not an option.
It happens so fast. One minute, they are in a cooking class; now, they are in their bedroom—but no, now it’s going to be Myka’s bedroom, alone, again—and Emily is filling her suitcase, and Myka is asking “Should I try to find you? I shouldn’t, should I, if it could mean that someone might hurt you…”
Emily is crying. She says, “I love you. I didn’t know that I was able to love someone like this, I felt like there was something missing, but I met you and you just made sense. Maybe when… if… they finally decide that everything’s safe… I wish I could remember what happened in the accident. If I could, maybe I could testify against someone, or pick them out of a lineup, or something. But I don’t know what happened. Maybe I’ll never know.”
And she leaves. That night, with that agent, she leaves. Myka has lost not one love, now, but two. She wants to think that this is the end of that kind of thing for her.
She starts feeling bad a few weeks later. Strangely bad; she thinks at first that it is sadness, that she is suffering, literally suffering, from a broken heart. Depression, she expects to hear from her doctor. But after many appointments, many tests, and many weeks during which she feels progressively worse, the diagnosis is cancer. Ovarian cancer. Adding insult to injury. Or injury to injury. It doesn’t matter, she thinks; Emily is gone. Emily is gone, Sam is gone, but cancer is here. She bows to her doctor’s urging: she will undergo an initial surgery immediately. She calls her parents, just to let them know. Her mother cries on the phone. Her father hyperventilates in the background. She wishes she had thought to, or felt that she could, share her earlier happiness with them.
She is almost looking forward to the operating room, for at least, there, she will truly feel nothing for a while. The anesthesiologist is an older woman with a rough voice. She tells Myka, “Here’s what we do: you start counting down from nineteen. My goal is for you to be out before you hit fourteen. Okay?”
“Okay,” Myka says, thinking that these are very strange numbers. “Nineteen… eighteen… seventeen… sixteen… fifteen…” She realizes, fuzzily, that she is fighting as hard as she can against it. There is no point to that. She wants to be oblivious. “Fourteen,” she says. And that is all.