She Lies Alone – Laura Wolfe

The jogger followed the worn path, comforted by the familiarity of his morning run. The beam of a passing car lit up the compacted dirt beneath his Nike shoes, the gentle curve in the trail luring him like a smile. His feet stepped higher, his jaw loosening. Two mornings a week for the last three years, the same route had ushered him past Ravenswood High School and around the soccer field before depositing him safely onto the sidewalk and marching him a mile-and-a-half back to his house. Now, a chill in the air tingled his skin and dared him to push himself, to run faster, to live a little. Glancing over his shoulder, he confirmed he was alone. Only the towering windows of the high school peered down on him. He angled his feet away from the main pathway and sprinted over a shadowy row of stones that cut through the middle of the studentplanted rain garden. A Keep Off sign stood guard beside the garden path, its tilted lettering warning him away from the native shrubs. He inhaled through his nose and brushed past it, ignoring the way the tall weeds scratched at his calves. This small act of defiance was his favorite part of the run. Adrenaline surged through his muscles, a burst of renewed energy lengthening his stride. His breath came easier as he exited the garden and strode across the empty parking lot, almost as if an unknown force was guiding him. A neon purple-and-orange banner flapped above the school’s side entrance—Geeks and Goblins, Wednesday, October 25th, 7–10 p.m.

, a series of solar lights illuminating the giant words. Today was Thursday. The banner hadn’t been there last week. The darkened outline of glass and concrete walls and a spinning wind turbine loomed in his peripheral vision, the building resembling something closer to a Fortune 500 company than a public high school. He huffed, listening to the sound of his rubber soles hitting the asphalt. They hadn’t built schools like that when he’d been a teenager. Visibility was murky so early in the morning, and his toe caught on a loose rock. He slowed his stride and placed his feet carefully as he navigated the expansive parking area. A lone sedan materialized from the darkness near the back of the lot. Someone had arrived at school early.

Or maybe they’d never made it home from the party. He chuckled, remembering his own escapades from his high school days as he made a wide turn to avoid the overflowing garbage bins. The stench of souring meat wafted nearby, which he took as more evidence of the successful celebrations the night before. He continued jogging, nearing a preserved stretch of woods. The dew soaked into his shoes as he stepped from the hard surface onto the grassy decline. He plodded around the edge of the woods, immune to the wetness seeping through his socks. The soccer field emerged below, the scent of freshly cut grass filling his lungs. He set a mental goal to run five laps around the field before heading back home, as was his routine. He labored forward, a shadowy and undefined heap catching his eye next to the goalpost, an aberration on the normally vacant field. Was it a forgotten bag of soccer balls? His vision had been deteriorating in recent months, but he could make out the curve of inflated leather.

As his squeaky shoes carried him closer, his eyes refocused, adjusting to the dim light, his gut collapsing at the realization. The curve rising from the ground wasn’t a soccer ball. It was a head. The lifeless mound was a person. The jogger’s legs stopped moving, his breath thick and choppy in his throat. The woman’s pale limbs lay twisted in unnatural directions—a knee bent backward, an elbow turned down, and her head angled sideways. Her wavy blonde hair fanned out over her head as if she were plummeting down a drop in a roller coaster. Dried blood bloomed in grotesque flowers across her silky shirt and unzipped jacket, revealing multiple slashes cut through her neck and torso. Blood splatter reached across her frozen face like gnarled fingers. An inky, curdling puddle darkened the manicured turf beneath her.

The jogger rested his hands on his knees and retched. His trembling fingers pushed the emergency button on his smartwatch, calling 911. As he waited for the police to arrive, he noticed a lanyard flung into the grass a few steps away. He inched toward it, lowering his eyes, lungs heaving. It was a Ravenswood High School teacher ID. The woman in the photo shared the honey-blonde hair and slender build of the mangled woman in the grass. She was a teacher in the English department, and her name was Elena Mayfield. ONE JANE Seven weeks before Elena Mayfield’s murder The shiny stapler, document organizer, cup of pens, and updated framed photo lay evenly spaced across the surface of my lemon-scented desk. This was it—the pinnacle. The cleanest and most organized my desk would be all year.

I snapped a mental picture before pacing in front of my fourth-hour scholars. The first day of eleventh-grade AP Chemistry was underway. “Please take a moment to admire my new artwork.” I bit back my smile and waved toward the posters that I’d ordered online and had tacked to the wall this morning. A black poster with a red border read, Think like a proton—be positive! Next, there was a bubbling test tube with the words, Don’t overreact. And then there was my favorite statement of the obvious—Science is Real! It was hard to believe we lived in a world where one must defend the existence of science. I surveyed twenty-eight faces of varying skin tones, their eyes as round and wide as petri dishes. A few of the students chuckled and shifted in their chairs. “Before we start section one, let’s take a minute to think about how chemistry is relevant to our everyday lives.” I stepped in front of the Smart Board, my fingers laced behind my back.

The jitters that normally rippled through my stomach during the first days of school had died down. A plain-faced girl in the front row coughed. What was her name? Dawn or Devon? My feet inched toward the seating chart I’d camouflaged between some other papers on my desk. A boy with an athletic build whispered something to his friend in the back of the class, and the other boy laughed “You, back there.” I pointed toward the offender, tossing a sly glance toward my cheat sheet. “Is it Austin?” “Yeah.” “Any ideas?” “Um.” He shrugged. “Food?” A ripple of laughter spread through the class. I made a face.

“Okay. I guess I’ll take that. To be more specific, there are numerous chemical processes used to cook food. Anaerobic respiration. Also, the Maillard reaction.” I surveyed the room. “Anyone else?” Five hands shot up. I motioned toward a girl with a pointed face whose glossy hair spilled over her shoulders. “McKenzie?” “Combustion of fuel.” I nodded.

“Yes. Even lighting a match or turning on the oven.” McKenzie crossed her arms and leaned back, satisfied. She wore the standard uniform of popular girls—black leggings, a T-shirt, and trendy sneakers. “Tell me more,” I said. “Does anyone know the opposite process of photosynthesis?” My eyes scanned the classroom, waiting. I took note of the students who weren’t participating. A girl dressed like McKenzie and Dawn, but with a messy dirty-blonde bun atop her head slumped in the front row. Her pretty face carried a sullen expression as if she’d just been told athleisure-wear was no longer permitted in school. I edged back toward my desk, stealing a look at my chart.

Her name was Phoebe Granger. My shoulders straightened. I’d met Phoebe’s mom, Amy Granger, in the office yesterday. She had explained how she’d taken the part-time administrative job to build up her résumé after enduring a nasty divorce the year before. She said her daughter would be in my class and hoped Phoebe could keep up her grades between her new spot on the varsity tennis team and multiple AP classes. I moved my eyes away from Phoebe. I’d envisioned her differently. More involved, for one. It seemed like she couldn’t give a crap. A pale, lanky boy near the back was also completely unengaged.

A dark trench coat hung from his narrow shoulders, despite temperatures near 80 degrees outside. His dense eyes sunk into his head like heavy stones. The boy’s name was Rowan Hasloff, and his reputation as a troubled loner had preceded him. I squared my shoulders toward him. “Rowan, do you have any ideas?” The boy pressed his thin lips together, his shaggy bangs obscuring his eyelids. He shook his head without making eye contact. I wondered how he’d made it into AP Chemistry. A freckle-faced boy named Liam scooted forward in his chair, a devious spark in his eyes. “How about when you took a crap this morning, Rowan?” The class erupted. I held up my hand, swallowing my smile.

Show no reaction. I’d learned that in teaching 101. Liam’s older brother had been in my class two years earlier and had also produced a smart-ass response at every opportunity. “Actually, Liam, you’re correct. Our bodily functions are part of chemistry, too. Thousands of chemical reactions take place during digestion.” As I lectured the room about an enzyme in saliva that breaks down sugars and carbohydrates, sunlight poured through the floor-to-ceiling window of my classroom and brushed against my skin. Despite the occasional wise guy, there were few places I’d rather teach than in this Midwestern college town where progressive education and inclusivity reigned supreme. I’d moved from Chicago to Ann Arbor eight years ago and landed the teaching position at Ravenswood a year later, and I’d never looked back. I was grateful for the chance to shape the scientists of tomorrow.

The school’s sustainable construction had been completed the same year I’d been hired, seven years earlier: a state-of-the-art, four-story, energy-efficient building complete with solar lighting, a geothermal heating and cooling system, and a vertical axis wind turbine to generate power. The school’s campus sprawled across one hundred acres, but only half of the land had been developed, the remainder preserved as woodlands and wetlands to coexist with nature. I couldn’t have done it any better if I’d designed it myself. On a tidy patch of grass outside my classroom window, the new English teacher, Elena Mayfield, sat cross-legged in the center of a circle of students. Her calico tank top billowed in the wind, a strand of honey-colored hair whipping across her face. Every once in a while, she rotated herself around and pointed at someone, throwing her delicate chin in the air as she laughed. The scene played out like a silent movie from another era. Elena looked to be in her mid to late twenties, a few years younger than my thirty-threeyear-old self, but way prettier and cooler. It blew my mind that straight-laced Principal Albright had agreed to let her teach outside. As I observed the engaging outdoor lesson, my fingers touched the blunt ends of my utilitarian haircut, a Great Clips special landing just below my jawline.

“Why can’t we have class outside?” Liam asked. I turned my head, shoving my hand in my pocket, and realizing my entire class had been staring out the window along with me. “Because chemistry requires indoor equipment.” Several students groaned. Outside, Ms. Mayfield stood up with a dandelion tucked behind her ear and her pride of students following behind her. “Let’s talk about matter,” I said, picking a subject guaranteed to spark enthusiasm. “As I’m sure you remember, all matter can be understood in terms of various arrangements of atoms.” A door slammed in the hallway, hoots and hollers ringing out. Despite the school’s solid construction, the wall between my classroom and room 102 was thin.

Twenty-eight sets of eyes flickered toward the classroom next door as I rambled on about chemical reactions and the transfer of electrons. Elena’s voice chirped from the other side, followed by intermittent waves of laughter. I paused my lecture, flipping through notes, my equilibrium upset by the unrestrained glee next door. My students shifted in their seats, probably wishing they were on the other side of the wall. My first impression of Elena had been formed during a teacher workday last week. She introduced herself to me with overeager eyes and a mild quiver in her voice. My initial reaction was harsh, silently predicting that her students would eat her alive. But when another teacher told me that Elena had transferred from a magnet school near Detroit, I realized there was substance behind the demure facade. I’d pegged her all wrong. I lectured for a few more minutes before giving my students some independent work time.

Then I redirected my attention toward the fidgeting students in front of me. “Tomorrow, we’ll pick up with lesson 1.2, changes in matter. No homework until next week.” “Yes!” Liam pumped his fist. Several others let out sighs of relief. The bell rang, and chairs scraped out in all directions, backpacks flung upon shoulders. I pointed toward a pile of my husband’s business cards I’d stacked on a table near the door. “Feel free to take a card on your way out. My husband is a handyman.

He can fix anything.” I peered out into the hallway, making sure no other teachers were lurking around the corner to witness my bending of school rules. A few students grabbed one as they fled, their young minds not yet cynical enough to question the shameless self-promotion of our family business. My stomach growled. I tucked the remaining cards in my desk drawer and closed the door to my classroom, heading around the corner to the teacher’s lounge. Elena strolled in the same direction. “How’s it going?” I asked as we entered the atrium-like lounge, beams of sunlight and the smell of old coffee attacking us. There were three similar adult sanctuaries placed throughout the school, but this one was the closest to my classroom. I preferred to eat lunch here instead of in the teachers’ cafeteria, which bordered the student cafeteria. Elena lowered her long eyelashes for slightly longer than a blink and tossed her wavy hair behind her shoulder.

“Great. I’m really getting to know them today.” Her straight white teeth formed a satisfied smile as she sat in a chair at an empty table. “How’d you swing teaching outside? I mean, with Albright.” Elena shrugged. “I just did it.” “You didn’t ask?” A prickling chill displaced the warmth in my cheeks. She opened her flowered lunch bag, ignoring my question. “What about your department chair?” Elena made a face. “Jefferson? I think his head would explode if I moved my desk three inches to the left.

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