THE FIRST TIME I saw him, a heavy, gray fog clung to the cornfields, tails of mist slithering between the dying stalks. It was a dreary early morning right after Labor Day, and I was waiting for the school bus, just minding my own business, standing at the end of the dirt lane that connected my family’s farmhouse to the main road into town.
I was thinking about how many times I’d probably waited for that bus over the course of a dozen years, killing time like any mathlete would, by doing calculations in my head, when I noticed him.
And suddenly that familiar stretch of blacktop seemed awfully desolate.
He was standing under a massive beech tree across the road from me, his arms crossed over his chest. The tree’s low, gnarled branches twisted down around him, nearly concealing him in limbs and leaves and shadows. But it was obvious that he was tall and wearing a long, dark coat, almost like a cloak.
My chest clenched, and I swallowed hard. Who stands under a tree at the crack of dawn, in the middle of nowhere, wearing a black cloak?
He must have realized I’d spotted him, because he shifted a little, like he was deciding whether to leave. Or maybe cross the road.
It had never struck me how vulnerable I’d been all those mornings I’d waited out there alone, but the realization hit me hard then.
I glanced down the road, heart thudding. Where is the stupid bus? And why did my dad have to be so big on mass transit, anyhow? Why couldn’t I own a car, like practically every other senior? But no, I had to "share the ride" to save the environment. When I’m abducted by the menacing guy under the tree, Dad will probably insist my face only appear on recycled milk cartons. . . .
In the precious split second I wasted being angry at my father, the stranger really did move in my direction, stepping out from under the tree, and I could have sworn—just as the bus, thank god, crested the rise about fifty yards down the road—I could have sworn I heard him say, "Antanasia."
My old name . . . The name I’d been given at birth, in Eastern Europe, before I’d been adopted and brought to America, rechristened Jessica Packwood. . . .
Or maybe I was hearing things, because the word was drowned out by the sound of tires hissing on wet pavement, grinding gears, and the whoosh of the doors as the driver, old Mr. Dilly, swung them open for me. Wonderful, wonderful bus number 23. I’d never been so happy to climb on board.
With his usual grunted "Mornin’, Jess," Mr. Dilly put the bus in gear, and I stumbled down the aisle, searching for an empty seat or a friendly face among the half-groggy riders. It sucked sometimes, living in rural Pennsylvania. The town kids were probably still sleeping, safe and sound in their beds.
Locating a spot at the very back of the bus, I plopped down with a rush of relief. Maybe I’d overreacted. Maybe my imagination had run wild, or too many episodes of America’s Most Wanted had messed with my head. Or maybe the stranger really had meant me harm. . . . Twisting around, I peered out the rear window, and my heart sank.
He was still there, but in the road now, booted feet planted on either side of the double yellow line, arms still crossed, watching the bus drive away. Watching me.
"Antanasia . . ."
Had I really heard him call me by that long-forgotten name?
And if he knew that obscure fact, what else did the dark stranger, receding in the mist, know about my past?
More to the point, what did he want with me in the present?