AEDAN CONOR worked in the dark of his classroom, a desk lamp illuminating his efforts. Red pen in hand, he occasionally made marks on the papers below him, his head over the desk and bent down in concentration, his elbows like heavy supports under him. He’d finish grading a paper every minute or so and swiftly replace it with another; but his efforts were strained and halting, as though some unseen electrical outlet powering him was short-circuiting. Many times he’d find himself not grading at all, but drumming his fingers absentmindedly on his desk, completely lost in thought. He was doing that now. He stopped at the realization.
He studied his fingernails abstractedly for a moment before slamming his hand on the desk and cursing under his breath. The beginnings of a headache throbbed dully over his eyes. He rubbed them, and then gave a long, unsatisfying yawn. He scratched his itchy beard, and then leaned back in his chair, placing his hands on his stomach, interlacing his fingers.
This was at least the fifth time he had gone through the same process. Except now, he thought self-consciously. Now the headache was clearly worse—and it was fifty minutes later. And the papers, sorted into three stacks, seemed bloody endless.
The stacks …
Pre-Algebra to his left. Two problem sets, a dozen problems in each. Status: untouched.
The middle stack was Algebra. A ten-question quiz. Status: half graded. He squinted. And crap results thus far. Summer break was still a month away and already the little monkeys were behaving as though the holiday had already started.
The right stack was Geometry. It was also the largest. The assignment involved difficult calculations concerning their house projects. Some beginning trigonometry; some notes on basic physics; three proofs. Most of the students had consumed two or more pages of notebook paper; he had them staple the pages together before handing them in. The stack’s status: barely a quarter of it was graded.
It took him a minute or so to realize he had been staring at it and drumming his fingers on the desk again, his head bent once more in a pained effort to concentrate, his elbows once again propping his head up.
His thoughts had cycled back and were repeating themselves anew, a tape recorder that he could not find the off switch to. He listened to them now, giving up entirely to their monotony.
Three months ago he had found her—the Apprentice. Or … had he? Three months ago. Now what? What should he do now? For Melody Singleton had utterly failed to this point to manipulate the aecxis—the periodless question mark with the curly-Q top. And he had to be brutally honest here: it was entirely possible she might never succeed, that in fact she wasn’t the Apprentice at all. It could well turn out that her abilities would never evolve beyond the basic and relatively useless capacity to simply see the aecxis. This happened, in fact, most of the time for those few who could see it. All told, Mathematicians were a rare and special lot, and those who existed often required an entire lifetime of practice to achieve even minimal success. Most never did. Most simply never chose to.
Then again, perhaps Melody’s abilities were specialized. That happened too. Perhaps she’s a Dreamcatcher, he thought. Or a Bow Guard. Perhaps in his unbridled excitement at discovering that she could actually see the fantastic symbol come to life, he had seriously misjudged her. And even assuming she could eventually manipulate it, there was no guarantee at all that she would suffer the extraordinary amount of work and the endless patience that work demanded in order to expand and refine her fledgling powers.
He shook his head. “Eleysius,” he muttered, “ye weren’t clear enough with me, mate ...”
But if Melody was the Apprentice …
Then precious time was running out while he dithered and she struggled. Time that would determine whether an entire world—whether entire worlds—lived, or were destroyed—were consumed—by an evil being who even now might be too powerful to stop.
He pushed that thought from his mind. Focus on what you can control, old boy. Focus on the positive. It’s all ye got right now.
Melody had turned out to be a model student, just as he suspected she’d be. She seemed to have an intuitive and easy grasp of mathematics, though he knew that perception to be patently false: her mother had shared with him during his first call to her months ago that Melody had always struggled over her maths studies, but found the subject so compelling she’d refuse to stop until she figured out the answer to the problem she was working on. Her ease in grasping the material had come with a very high price, one she’d already paid many times over, and over the course of a lifetime.
She had eagerly participated in the semester-long house project, jumping in with both feet; and, despite her Teacher’s Assistant status, she even made a few friends while helping out. She was consistently affable, if not very quiet, and willing to tutor the occasional student struggling over some obscure geometry concept or difficult calculation. She was very patient and understanding, making Conor wonder if her mother was like that as well. Like her maths abilities, her tutoring seemed to come quite effortlessly. He wondered if that aptitude had come with a high price as well, or was merely natural.
Overall, she was an accepted and liked member of his Geometry classroom, though certainly not one he’d call popular: Her shyness seemed to intervene against such a possibility. She did her homework or classwork dutifully and then would get to work either on his projects and planning or dive in on the special proof he’d handed her. He tried to reserve time each day to precisely this latter end. But the girl staring intently down at the single sheet of notebook paper on her desktop, her hands clasped in her lap, was clearly showing signs of hopeless frustration mixed with sagging burnout. But, amazingly, each school day for the past twelve weeks, and without fail, and without a single word of complaint, she’d try again … and again … and again …
… just as she must have years ago, working on mathematics problems too advanced for her as her mother looked on.
She was doing that now, but under his careful auspices. But three long months had passed, and she was no closer now than she was then to solving the proof. He had told her to put it down and leave it alone for a while, to rest, but that went over like a lead balloon: she had glanced at him as if he were crazy; a glance that also told him she’d redouble her efforts yet again—and the Devil with her fatigue. He had re-drawn the proof at least six times, on six separate sheets of notebook paper, the other sheets ending up wrinkled, tattered, smudged beyond belief. He recalled an earlier sheet with a large green splotch of what looked like green chili salsa on it and a three- or four-inch tear down the middle, the clear tape over it covered in fingerprints and yellowing. The hours and hours of her concentrated efforts were obvious by the state of the paper those efforts were aimed at.
He shuddered. Soon she might just give up … and I’d be back at square one.
And: It’s not like I’m getting any bloody younger.
And: I—we—may very well be running out of time—and not even damn well know it!
Two days ago she glanced up at him from her desk. She had been staring nonstop at the proof for nearly fifty minutes without interruption. Now she stared at him. It was a pleading, urgent, withering stare, her eyes bloodshot. It was the kind of look an innocent man would give his jailer who also knows he’s innocent—and moments before his execution. The stare stopped him dead in the middle of his lecture on how to calculate cosines. He had to fumble through his notes, his mind scrambled totally, the class silent but quite aware that a very significant exchange had just taken place. He stuttered back into his lesson—but no person, present or past, had ever seen Aedan Conor so flustered.
“To hell with this!” he snarled, sitting up. It was useless attempting to concentrate. He’d have to take the ungraded portion of each stack back to the Cas—
She stood in the entrance to the classroom, half lost in shadow and the yellow glare from his desk lamp. He came up with a start. Her voice was soft and unobtrusive; even so, it had shocked him back to the moment.
He squinted past the circle of light surrounding him. “Yes? Can I help you?”
She stepped into the dark room. She was a slender woman with medium length brown hair that fell loosely and forgetfully around lithe shoulders, hair parted down the middle and looped behind her ears, framing an attractive and young face. Her gray-blue eyes were sharp, contrasting with her soft voice, one that sounded vaguely familiar. Her smile was welcoming and humble and endearingly faltering in a way he had definitely seen before.
He suddenly had a very good notion who this was.
“I’m going to venture a guess and say you must be Mrs. Singleton, Melody’s mother,” he said, rising.
She approached him with a smile. “Yes. Do you have a minute? I’d hate to take you away from your work; and I apologize for not calling and scheduling an appointment. I’d like to discuss—”
“Melody, of course,” he said, shaking her hand. He motioned her to a desk, quickly flipped on the classroom lights while she sat, and, while blinking back the sudden sterile brightness, turned the desk next to hers around to face her. He sat in it and knew then his headache wasn’t going to go away on its own.
“You’re like me,” she said. “You like working in the dark.”
“Yes,” he replied. “These infernal office lights suck the very soul out of you.”
“I believe I said this to you months ago, when you first called; but your accent is very pleasant. Irish?”
“Yes. And thank you. Born in Dublin, though I’ve lived in the States for the past twenty or so years.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Singleton—”
“Ms., if you don’t mind. Divorced.”
“Of course. My apologies. I’ve always held a certain pride in my heritage.”
“As well you should.”
“But,” he said, leaning forward, “I have the sneaking suspicion you didn’t come to discuss my accent, but Miss Melody.”
Maggie’s smile faded somewhat. “Yes. I’m very concerned about her. About the work you’re giving her. Some of it seems way too difficult for her.”
His heart sank. “Some of it?”
“Yes. Well, just one thing really. It’s always the same thing. Melody calls it a ‘proof.’ But it certainly doesn’t look like anything I’ve ever seen before. I mean, it’s rather odd—that single fancy-looking question mark—is it a question mark? —next to what looks like a smashed triangle.” She waved her hand in front of her face, as if swatting away a pesky gnat. “It’s been years since I’ve taken any math, so much could have changed with teaching it in all that time. But that ‘proof,’ ” she said, frowning, “has had quite an effect on my daughter.”
Conor listened without comment, watching the woman in front of him, who continued:
“It’s all she focuses on, Mr. Conor. She gets her other homework done as quickly as she can—her grades are fine in those other areas, so it’s not a problem—and she’s not neglecting her violin … not yet, at least—”
“She plays the violin?” he asked, surprised.
Maggie nodded. “Next to her mathematics studies, it’s her passion. Her best friend Yaeko teaches her.”
He smiled. He thought of another violinist named Yaeko, this one known as “The Young Master,” a child prodigy, one whose music for a short time transfixed the entire world with its beauty, grace, and power. An astonishing talent who tragically died in a car crash almost three years ago.
“But Mr. Conor,” Maggie went on, interrupting his thoughts, “she finishes everything as quickly as she can, including time with me, and then holes herself up in her bedroom until she passes out from exhaustion hours later. She’s becoming irascible and contentious—I mean, beyond the normal teenage drama, that is—and she isn’t eating nearly as much as she should. All because of that proof. You have no idea how absolutely determined this girl can get. Once she sets her mind to something, it’s over. She won’t budge until she’s mastered it, come hell or high water. And usually both show up. Would you not agree that this is a bit … well, much?”
“Yes, of course, of course,” he said. “Please continue …”
“She’s also lost interest in brushing her teeth, bathing, feeding the dog, reading, taking walks, listening to music, helping me around the house, eating … I know she’s not sleeping.... I guess I could understand all this if it were something like a crush on a boy or something like that, but a math proof?
“So can you tell me, Mr. Conor, why my daughter is so obsessed with it? Perhaps with some understanding, however rudimentary, I could help her. I mean, I haven’t taken math in years, but perhaps if you showed me how to answer it, gave me some hints…?”
Conor hesitated for a moment before answering. “It’s really little more than a proof … of a triangle … and the three segments making it up, Ms. Singleton—”
“Maggie,” she said. “Ms. feels too stuffy here.”
“Ms. Maggie. Lovely name.”
She grinned. “Thank you.”
“Maggie,” Conor continued, “the problem is that the work is actually quite advanced and somewhat … intuitive, even given its seemingly basic nature. Does that make sense? No? Well—let’s move on for now. By contrast, most, if not all, of the work other students are doing is well below Melody’s abilities. I gave her that proof to challenge her, to see just how advanced she really is—”
Maggie’s face reflected slight alarm. “So—she’s not participating with the rest of the class?”
“No, no,” he said, holding up his hand, “she participates, believe me. She’s probably the most involved student, in fact. She’s taken a very active part in the house project—which started well before she joined us; she helps me with grading and organizing; and she tutors her classmates. No, Maggie, Melody by no means gets to zone out, as it were, just on that proof.”
She was listening and nodding in approval. The alarm in her eyes had gone. “Good,” she said. “Good. I’m relieved to hear it. It was one of my greatest worries when she was … demoted—” she spat the word in contempt—“from that horrid GATE class with that intolerant sow of a teacher and that brat Tommy Heffledorf, who has bullied her every chance he’s gotten. Know who he is? No? Well, no matter. The problem is, Mr. Conor, Melody is a very shy teen, and quite unassuming, and if she could simply melt into the background, she’d do it in a heartbeat. She’s easy pickings for bullies like Tommy and, unfortunately, adult bullies like Mrs. Lilywhite. She needs to be challenged to grow and reach out of herself … I see that you agree.”
“She is a remarkable young lady, Maggie. She has great potential.”
Maggie held his gaze for a moment, and then gave a short laugh tinged with bitterness. “With all due respect, Mr. Conor—”
“Aedan, I’ve heard this ‘great potential’ schpeel so often now that it nauseates me. Tell me, are teachers trained to mouth such platitudes in order to get certified or hired?”
He gazed at her, momentarily shocked into painful self-awareness. For those brief, silent moments he felt tiny and fake.
He sat back and laughed. She watched him dispassionately, a slight smile on her face. When he finished, he shook his head, reaching for the masticated stub of a pencil left by a long-since departed student. He spun it between his thumb and middle finger, watching it and not her. “I’m at a loss, Maggie—”
“I mean,” she went on, “that’s exactly what Doreen Lilywhite told me at the Parent-Teacher night in January. And you know, she’s not the first to say Melody had all this ‘great potential’ before treating her like dirt—and I know that she opposed even allowing Melody into that class! She was just schmoozing me! I’ve heard that platitude for years now— and it’s just a big fat lie. So perhaps you can see how little value I attach to it these days?”
Conor kept his gaze on the pencil he was spinning. “Yes, of course …”
“What does it mean to have ‘great potential,’ Aedan? If you really think of it, it’s meaningless. Very few individuals on this earth ever bother to truly look inside to discover this wonderful ‘great potential’ educators talk about, let alone do anything about it, wouldn’t you agree?”
“My apologies,” he said, nodding. “And yes,” he chuckled, “at university we are trained to mouth inanities like ‘great potential.’ But in this case, it’s quite true. And—let me finish—this little girl of yours is desperately trying to realize it. It’s why I’ve challenged her. Because—at least in her case—she is one student who doesn’t seem to want to dig herself into a hole of ignorance and cover herself up, her shyness notwithstanding.”
Maggie’s stare pierced for a moment longer before softening. “Can you give her something that’s at least a little less challenging for now? Perhaps that would help.”
“I wish I could. But this branch of … mathematics—geometry—has this proof as its basis. And—” he scratched his beard thoughtfully—“I really do think she can solve it.”
“Tell you what,” he said suddenly and without thinking, “give Melody another week. Then we’ll switch gears. Fair enough?”
Maggie hesitated. “A week.”
He nodded jerkily, thinking inwardly that if Melody Singleton was in fact the Apprentice, and couldn’t solve this ‘proof’ within a single week, that he had just sentenced Earth to eternal darkness in the clutches of a powerful and hateful being.
“Can she get help from another student or maybe another teacher?”
He stopped spinning the pencil and sat up. “The problem with great potential, Maggie, is that it takes great courage to discover it within oneself—”
He stared in her eyes.
“Or its lack,” she said, finishing the thought. Her face was very serious again.
“Precisely. So you must know the answer to your question.”
“And you agree?”
It was her turn to sit back. Her eyes had gone from piercing to soft to, now, very tired. The silence grew oppressively thick before she finally said, quietly, “Melody really likes you, Aedan. I can see why.”
Another long silence. “Okay. A week.”
He could feel his lungs filling with air. It was then he realized that he hadn’t been breathing for the last full minute.
He said, half to himself, “A week.”
“A week,” she echoed.
His mind was racing, but haphazardly, like a race car with a tire blown out and skidding through an oil slick. It must be, he thought, a trait of this family to be able to scramble me so! ... It felt less at times like that unfortunate race car and much more like a chicken with its head cut off! He heard her say, “You look as if summer break couldn’t come fast enough …”
He came back to himself and chuckled. “Some days, yes. But these days I’m trying to sweep summer break back with a broom.”
“Too many commitments?”
“Something like that.”
“It’s odd,” she nodded with empathy, “I get the same feeling with Bug ...”
He blinked. “I’m sorry, who—?”
She laughed. “Oops. Melody. I’m talking about Melody. It’s the nickname she’s had her entire life. ‘Cute as a bug’: that’s where it came from. Her father gave it to her. If she knew you knew she’d absolutely skin me alive.
“Melody—‘Bug’—hates summer break. That’s when she goes to live with her father in Sarasota, though she didn’t go last summer. She loves seeing him, but just hates it there. Keeps telling him to move back to Imperial Beach ...”
Conor could hear the back of his brain screaming, Bloody hell. More time! I need MORE BLOODY TIME!
“… though she does love seeing her brother ...”
—One sodding month! I need more than a month! —
“Do you have children, Aedan?”
He was staring full force at the chewed-on pencil stub.
He shook himself out of his silent panic and blinked once, twice, thrice. “I’m sorry, Maggie,” he said, “too much on my mind, I guess …”
“No, I’m the one who should be sorry,” she offered, standing and gathering her things, “I’ve kept you long enough. You must be feeling just about burned out, what with summer break approaching—no, no, don’t get up.” She extended her hand. “Have a great night, Aedan. It was a pleasure meeting you at last.”
“And me you,” he said, grasping her hand and shaking it, feeling a pleasant thrill at its softness. “And for what it’s worth, there’s no burnout here. In fact, I have a very strong feeling that my best teaching is just ahead of me.”
She turned at the door. “Not from lack of overzealous parents like me …”
He smiled. “Don’t put yourself down. You did the right thing coming here—”
“What are you doing Saturday night, Aedan?”
He blinked, astonished.
She glanced down at her feet, and then continued, speaking rapidly, “I mean … Melody really likes you…. And I was thinking … perhaps we could meet for dinner at Fisherman’s Choice at the end of the Pier…? You could help keep her from driving me crazy this weekend, so it would be in an altruistic cause … and she won’t come out and forget that hellacious assignment of yours unless I make it an R.B.D.—like asking you out to dinner.”
He grimaced, puzzled. “An … ‘R.B.D.’?”
She laughed. “Sorry. Raising a teen girl, you know … all those terms, the ‘cool’ lingo—” she hooked her fingers to emphasize the quotes. “ ‘R.B.D.’ means ‘Really Big Deal.’ ”
He nodded thoughtfully. “I hadn’t heard that one.” He glanced at the stub of pencil. “I’m … married, Maggie. I’m sorry.”
She flushed a violent red. “Of course. How stupid of me—I didn’t even ask—and just because a man’s not wearing a wedding band doesn’t ... and … wow. Forgive me, Aedan. I’ll be go—”
“I’m lying, Maggie. I’d love to join you for dinner.”
He grinned mischievously.
Her chin snapped up suddenly, her eyes wide with amazement and a momentary fierce anger that flustered him just as surely as her daughter’s withering glance had the other day. Then—she laughed. She laughed, and the spring was released, as if she had just opened a dozen balloons full of worry and doubt and motherly anxiety into the happy sky, to float away into nothingness. “I owe you one. Shall we meet, say, six-thirty?”
“I’ll see you then.”
“Goodnight … Aedan. Lights back off?”
“Please. Thank you. And—goodnight, Maggie.”
He heard the remaining staff leave over the next two hours. Some stopped by his classroom, glanced inside, and bade him goodnight, even though the room appeared dark and deserted from the brightly lighted hallway. He could hear their footsteps fading as they strode towards the big double doors that opened into the Language Arts wing, which led to the school’s staff parking lot; he’d hear those doors open with a groan and close with a wooden clatter, and then … silence.
Doreen Lilywhite walked by without stopping. He didn’t have to look up to know it was she: he could hear the control pantyhose she wore rubbing together like sandpaper in time with her heavy, lurching footfalls, along with her ever-present grunting.
Sometime later he could hear janitors milling about. One stopped briefly to empty his trash. The short, stocky man abruptly burst in, flicking the lights on without realizing anybody was there. “Oh, excuse me, Mr. Conor. I’ll be just a minute …”
Conor looked up only long enough to nod in his direction, then went back to work. The man finished his chores and left, turning off the lights as he departed.
Silence. He was finally completely alone. When he looked up again, even the hallway lights had been turned off.
He was full of energy and concentration now—and couldn’t pinpoint why. Surely a simple conversation with the parent of a student couldn’t do that—could it? Or that said parent had just asked him out? He smiled, his pen scribbling in the margin of a geometry assignment. He thought: That wasn’t just the parent of a student … and the student isn’t just any student.
It was very likely that she was much, much more.
But he had to know for sure.
His headache was gone. And with its welcome departure came a decision. It was time, he thought, to find out once and for all: was Melody Singleton the Apprentice he had sought for over twenty years—or wasn’t she? He knew there was a way to get an answer. A way he hesitated employing, for it was quite dangerous. But now, it seemed, he had no choice. Now he was under two pressing deadlines.
He had to find out. If Melody was indeed the Apprentice, the clock was ticking down on entire worlds.
An hour later he stood at the foot of the Imperial Beach Pier. The sun was just minutes from setting, a brilliant orange circle squishing slowly into the watery horizon, the sky above him dissolving into a sleepy navy blue.
The beach on both sides of him was clear: no swimmers or surfers, no joggers or dogs, no lifeguards or tourists. The plaza behind him was empty, save the lights from the three stores in the plaza’s single building. The Pier itself stretched before him, free of people, the blue light shining in the octagonal tower at the top of the building at its end like a beacon, inviting him. He looked at it, smiling slightly.
He strode up the walkway’s center, neither hurrying nor taking his time, surveying all before him, his chin moving left or right only occasionally, his stride calm and proud, as though he owned the entire structure.
A hundred feet above him a triplet of seagulls glided in a precise V formation. A pair of triplets glided to either side of this one, fifty feet away and twenty feet lower. They glided over him, silent, flying forward at the exact same speed he walked. When their wings moved, they did so in unison, and at the very same instant the centermost bird’s did. At Pier’s end he nodded, not looking up, and the triplets dutifully dispersed, curving away over the indigo ocean back towards shore. He clasped his hands behind his back and waited.
The top of the sun had just dropped below the glassy sea when he heard a rusty crack as the restaurant’s back door opened. At that sound, he turned around.
The door stood open—but no one stood in the entrance. There was nothing but the dark hallway that he knew led to the back kitchen.
He walked into the hallway, closing the door behind him.