It had been two-and-a-half weeks since Wendy killed anyone, and she was getting antsy. The smell of popcorn wafting from the concession stand made her stomach churn; she didn’t appreciate the reminder of her lost childhood. Amaya and Tommy argued about some stupid TikTok video while Meg attempted to intervene. Wendy’s worn sneakers scraped the dry earth as she shuffled behind, allowing the meager crowd filling the football stadium to thin out. She spotted a handsome man in his early thirties fade into darkness under the athletic field. A warm rush of anticipation flooded Wendy’s cheeks, and a sudden spike in adrenaline made her heart flutter.
“Go on ahead,” Wendy said. “I’m just going to hit the girls’ room. Meet you in the stands.” Amaya waved her off, engrossed in her squabble.
She was lying, of course. She had no intention of using the restroom. Whether she would meet them in the stands later was still undecided. Wendy studied her friends as they blended into the crowd, memorizing each movement, in case this was the last time she saw them. She tucked her hair behind her ear, savoring the animated pitch of Amaya’s fading quarrel as she and Tommy turned the corner and vanished from Wendy’s sight. Her bones ached at the thought of leaving Amaya, but Wendy had one purpose for being on school grounds at such an ungodly hour on a Saturday morning, and she had just lost visual on him.
As she slinked beneath the stadium, the cement walls shaded the late-September sun and the temperature dropped ten degrees. Wendy wrapped her sweatshirt tighter around her torso, combating the goosebumps that crawled down her arms. She scurried toward the restrooms, her shoulders dropping in disappointment as the men’s room door swung shut. She missed her chance. She furrowed her brow as she contemplated an alternative plan.
Reaching into her purse, she pushed aside her high school ID—the one that featured her overly energetic, toothy grin—the photo that captured everything she pretended to be, at least for now.
She dug through her bag. It was a cheap knock-off, but she didn’t care. She pushed past a lipstick tube (Red Sunrise, Tommy’s favorite), past a few broken pencils, their tips in a messy collection at the bottom of the bag, and past a barely wrapped tampon.
Wendy grabbed her wallet, unzipped the change pouch, and gripped a handful of pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters. As the sound of running water echoed from the men’s room, Wendy intentionally released the coins, watching them bounce on the solid concrete floor, their metallic ting reverberating off the walls.
“Oh, I’m such a klutz,” Wendy said as Mr. Godwin exited the bathroom to find his third-period English student huddled over a mass of scattered money. “Who even carries change anymore, right? Ugh, I’m such a disaster.”
“Let me give you a hand,” Mr. Godwin said as he crouched down next to Wendy, prying up a dime with his perfectly manicured thumb nail. His eyes sparkled despite the sparsely lit basement. Wendy grinned, acutely aware of the intense jealousy her fellow students would feel being mere inches from Mr. Godwin’s perfectly chiseled jawline. Wendy knew better, though. She was well-aware of the repulsive soul lurking beneath his flawless quaff of thick, wavy hair.
Wendy stood, reached back into her purse, and slipped something that resembled a joy buzzer onto her finger. From the outside, the contraption looked like a simple gold ring; however, inside her palm hid a small square sponge embossed in a plastic casing. Her thumb traced the groove that separated the lid as she flicked it off and reached for Mr. Godwin’s hand.
“Thank you so much for your help,” she said as she held Mr. Godwin’s palm in hers, smearing a clear liquid that soaked the spongy patch of her “joy buzzer.” She allowed his hand to linger in hers long enough for the poison to soak through his skin and long enough to bat her eyes as he smiled. Mr. Godwin almost expected flirtation from his students, and he wasn’t one to discourage it. “Enjoy the game,” she said, biting her lower lip, partially to play the role of doting teenage girl, but mostly to choke back the repugnance billowing in her gut.
Wendy slid the ring off her finger and back into the protective cover in her purse. She had administered a transdermal-something-or-other that contained hydrochloro-blah-blah-blah. She started ignoring the details of the briefings years ago. The bottom line was that the man would feel fine for the next day or two, slowly feel some stomach flu symptoms, and would be dead within a week.
* * *
The sun was almost blinding compared to the dingy undercarriage of the stadium. Wendy slid casually into the bleachers next to Meg, Amaya, and Tommy, the cold of the aluminum penetrating through her thin jeans. She considered bolting after her run-in with Mr. Godwin, but she didn’t want to leave her friends behind. She couldn’t leave Amaya. Not yet.
“Hey, Wendy, just in time.” That was Meg. Sweet girl, but she tried a little too hard.
Amaya leaned back and flicked Wendy’s right ear. That was the sort of attitude that drew her to Amaya almost instantly.
Wendy was a name she wasn’t necessarily comfortable with, but it was fine for the time being. She wouldn’t have it for long. To her it always felt a little too 1950s goody-goody, like she should be in a poodle skirt singing The Name Game.
Wendy, Wendy, bo-bendy. Banana-fana, fo-fendy.
Wendy Lockheart (for lack of better nomenclature) didn’t normally gravitate toward the crowd that would spend a Saturday morning at a school football game, but this group was different. They weren’t there because they were rah-rah cheerleader wannabes or because they were so cool that it was ironic to pretend to have school spirit. They just did whatever they wanted to do and yesterday Tommy said, “Hey, let’s go to the football game tomorrow.” Once she learned Mr. Godwin would be there, she was on board.
Tommy smiled at her, just barely catching her eye before looking down, as if something beyond fascinating was happening right at his feet. It was normal for a high school girl to crush on a high school boy, so Wendy played along. Tommy was cute enough, and she enjoyed watching him squirm as she gave him mixed signals. For her, it was a game. The agency taught her to remain unattached. Her time was always limited. But she kept up appearances, laughing at his lame attempts at jokes, going along with his banal, small-minded ideas (like this football game). In all honesty, it wasn’t Tommy that brought her up from the stadium underground to watch her so-called peers smash each other’s helmeted heads together. It was Amaya.
* * *
Wendy had found her way to countless different schools since her induction into the agency, and the first days were always similar. Some schools make you introduce yourself to the class. Other schools just tell you to take a seat and try to ignore you as best as they can until the blaring ring of the school bell.
The first afternoon in the cafeteria is generally the same, and it began as such at West Elmdale High School (Go Cardinals). Wendy collected her tray of somewhat discernible meat and potato product with a side of nearly gray string beans and found a corner of a scarcely populated table. This was her favorite part. She enjoyed seeing what types of people attempted to make contact. She was part space alien and part lab rat about to be dissected.
As she popped the lid off her Kiwi Strawberry Snapple, a girl named Lara at the far end of the table scoffed. “That is seriously revolting,” she spat. Wendy scanned the area, searching for context. “Yes, you.” She caught Wendy’s eye.
“You don’t like kiwi?”
“It’s not your drink, you biohazard,” Lara said, pointing at Wendy’s forearm, which was bleeding onto the chipped particleboard table.
So much for blending in.
Wendy snagged a napkin and covered the cut she thought had healed. It was a souvenir from her previous target who got a little overzealous with a switchblade. She pulled a cardigan from her backpack and threw it over her Toucan Sam tee shirt, which she hoped would pass as vintage, but was really a Goodwill purchase.
“Ew, seriously? That’s not much better,” Lara said. “That sweater is literally falling apart.”
Wendy tugged at a large hole worn through the left elbow. Blood rushed to her face, partly because of embarrassment and partly out of rage.
“God, she’s a mess,” Lara said to a well-dressed girl to her right. “Stay away. She probably has lice.”
“Lice? I got you, cuz.” A strange little girl with dark-rimmed glasses and a streak of purple in her otherwise jet-black hair hopped up behind Wendy, a foot on either side of her on the cafeteria bench. The girl straddled Wendy from behind and feigned picking nits out of her hair like a wild monkey. She even threw in a few monkey noises as she did it. “Ooo ooo, eee-eee!” Her primal eyes scanned the room as she pretended to grab the lice and eat them. “There. Think I got them all. I’m Amaya Malone. At your service.”
Amaya hopped from the bench, stood beside the table, and mimicked an overly exaggerated curtsy. And that was Wendy’s first introduction to Amaya. It was instant chemistry. Lara rolled her eyes as she and her posse of prep school posers shuffled off in disgust.
“This here’s my bitchy friend, Meg.” Amaya gestured to a sweet-looking girl with braces and afro puffs with a zigzag part.
“She’s kidding,” Meg retorted. “She’s always kidding. Hey, you’re really pretty.”
“You have such pretty hair,” Meg added.
“Pretty eyes, too.” Meg shied away as she attempted that compliment.
Wendy’s eyes were, in fact, unique. The agency had little control over that. The rest was all by design. It was part of her training. Don’t be too attractive—attractive girls stand out. Don’t be too homely either—ugliness garners as much attention as beauty. The idea was to blend in. To be as invisible as possible. Her eyes, however, were outside of the agency’s oversight.
At seventeen years old, Wendy wore her brown, mousy hair in a shoulder-length bob with neatly trimmed bangs. She wore very little makeup—just enough to keep up with the status quo. She wasn’t too tall, and she wasn’t too short. Perfectly average. Her eyes were like a mosaic of different colored tiles. Similar to a chameleon, the primary hue shifted depending upon the surrounding colors.
When she was in Portland for six months, she had long blond hair and her eyes sparkled with a tinge of blue. She was a redhead in Decatur with grayish-green eyes to match. Today, in West Elmdale, New Jersey, her hazel eyes favored the light brown spectrum to complement her nondescript brunette bob.
“Thanks. I like your puffs,” Wendy replied, nodding toward Meg’s hair. “I’m Wendy.”
She had been Wendy for less than twelve hours at that point, but the words rolled off her tongue as if she had been Wendy her entire life.
“I have an inverted nipple,” Meg blurted out, immediately regretting it.
“I’m sorry. What’s that, now?” Wendy asked.
“Nothing.” She blushed.
“Why would you tell me that?”
“I don’t know. We don’t get many transfer students here. I got nervous. I overshare when I’m nervous.” Meg pulled away and sat at the bench across from Wendy, her face turned down as she anxiously poked at her lunch.
“Doofus,” Amaya chided, as she smacked Meg on the shoulder. “Don’t scare the new girl away.”
“Oh, I don’t scare easily,” Wendy explained.
“Good. For all intensive purposes, Meg is the saner one of us two.”
“Um, did you say, ‘intensive purposes’?” A tall, slightly muscular boy sitting at the table next to theirs had overheard the conversation.
“Stand up.” Amaya gestured for the boy to rise. He did. Amaya had a commanding presence that didn’t quite match her small stature.
“You know the expression is ‘intents and purposes,’ ri—?” Amaya slammed her knee into the boy’s crotch before he could finish his question. Hunched over in pain, he stumbled back to his cafeteria bench.
“That’s Tommy Vasquez, one of West Elmdale’s finest,” Amaya explained. “He’s hot, but he’s an asshat.”
Wendy glanced over at Tommy and gave him a shy smile. “You know he was right, though. Don’t you? About the expression?” Wendy asked.
“Doesn’t matter. It’s a little game I like to play,” Amaya said. “I intentionally say an expression wrong and if anyone is douchey enough to correct me, I hit ‘em in the balls.”
“What if a girl corrects you?”
“Seriously? Nine times out of ten it’s a boy trying to mansplain.” Amaya made her way next to Meg and straddled the cafeteria bench.
“Well, what about that one time out of ten?”
“Then I punch a tit.” Amaya shrugged as she tossed a tater tot into her mouth. “That’s how Meg, here, got her inverted nipple.”
Meg’s eyes widened in horror. “That’s not true. She’s kidding again. She’s always kidding.”
* * *
The buzz of the scoreboard jolted Wendy back to the present. Her life left no room for sentimentality. She was going to miss her friends. Meg had a kind soul, and Tommy was nice to look at, but Amaya was something more. She connected with her in a way she hadn’t with anyone else in any other town in this godforsaken country. She wasn’t supposed to get attached, and it typically wasn’t much of a struggle to abide by that rule, but it got lonely never having a genuine friend. For the first time, she dreaded what her next mission might be, or when it might begin.
She had no control over that aspect of the job. In fact, she had very little control over any facet of her purported existence. She even lacked the means to reach out with an inquiry, content to wait for instructions to reach her. Because the agency raised her, she never found the communication system aberrant, although she imagined outsiders may view it as somewhat peculiar.
Wendy received all intelligence via a stick of randomly flavored Wonder Rush Happy Funtime Bubblegum.
* * *
A middle-aged woman scratched an itch on her leg as she wrote her name on the whiteboard. Wendy’s sensitive ears cringed at the sound of her wool skirt rubbing against her pantyhose.
The letters spelled out “Mrs. Ratchford.”
The words almost teased the students as they read them. This woman needed no introduction. She was the go-to substitute teacher at West Elmdale High School and not well-liked.
Wendy could forgive the dated attire. She herself was no fashionista, but how Ratchford never seemed to notice the stale lipstick on her teeth, Wendy could not figure out. Once or twice, fine, but every day? At some point she must look in a mirror, right? A tight bun pulled her greasy hair to a slick shine, matting it to her skull.
“Class, I’m Mrs. Ratchford.” She gestured to the whiteboard. “I’ll be your substitute today for English Literature. Mr. Godwin has fallen ill.”
So it begins.
It was Monday. Mr. Godwin was probably feeling a little nauseous. Maybe some vomiting. If not, he would have that to look forward to soon. Maybe a slight fever—100, 101—nothing to cause too much alarm. Some Tylenol should keep it in check for now.
“I understand that you have been discussing Macbeth,” Mrs. Ratchford continued. “We’ll be watching clips from the 1971 Polanski film adaption today.”
“Wasn’t Polanski a rapist?” someone at the rear of the classroom asked.
There were scattered chuckles among the class, then another student piped up, “You showing us a rape film, Ratchford?”
“Who said that?” Mrs. Ratchford demanded. “Just settle down and watch the film.”
Wendy wasn’t sure what it was about substitute teachers that caused such disrespect, but it was the same in every school. Maybe it was the lack of recourse. Would a sub have the audacity to issue a detention? Does she even carry such authority? Would she send a student to the principal’s office? Probably, if provoked enough, but she would surely let a minor infraction slide. She wanted to get through the day like anyone else.
It surprised her to see Amaya partaking in the antics, but she was pleased at how unique her approach was. Most modern TVs have “smart” capabilities, and Amaya downloaded the manufacturer’s app months ago. Today was not her first tussle with a substitute. With a simple swipe of her phone, she could cast any video she wanted in front of the entire class.
Amaya gave Wendy a “check this out” nod and tapped a button on her phone. Instantly, the screen switched from Jon Finch rattling off some Shakespearean mumbo-jumbo to two frogs, mid-intercourse. Wendy laughed out loud, startling even herself. She rarely found standard teenage fare humorous, but Amaya seemed to know the right buttons to press.
“Oh, now what is this?” Mrs. Ratchford exclaimed, jumping from her chair. “Must be a faulty connection or something.” She jiggled the plugs on the back of the TV as if a loose wire could transform highbrow English drama into amphibious copulation.
After a hearty reaction from her peers, Amaya switched the video back to Macbeth. Mrs. Ratchford seemed pleased, as if her wire jiggling adequately addressed the problem.
“Here. Pick something,” Amaya whispered to Wendy as she passed her phone.
Now Wendy faced a conundrum. The agency taught her to fit in with those around her, which would justify her casting a video and pranking her teacher. On the other hand, she was trained to stay out of trouble, which implied that she should quietly pass the device back to her friend. On the other, other hand, she was actually having fun. There wasn’t a lot of that in her life, and she kind of liked it.
Wendy tapped a few buttons and an ISIS beheading video popped on the screen.
“Wendy! Oh, my God!” It was even a little too much for Amaya. She grabbed the phone from Wendy’s hand and switched off the video just as a sword nearly sliced through the neck of a hooded man on his knees.
“Dude, you are seriously twisted,” Amaya whispered. “I frigging like it!”
“Which one of you is Wendy?” demanded Mrs. Ratchford. One of the other students gestured, and Mrs. Ratchford grabbed Wendy by the arm and pulled her out of her seat. Sure, Wendy could have taken Mrs. Ratchford down easily, but she wanted to give Ratchford the win.
“And you.” She pointed to Amaya. “Are you responsible for the fornicating frogs?”
“Guilty as charged, Ratchet.”
“Excuse me, young lady, my name is Mrs. Ratchford.”
Amaya clenched her fist and gave Wendy a look like she wanted to hit her for the correction. Wendy’s eyes widened, and she shook off Amaya’s gesture.
* * *
As it turns out, substitute teachers do have the authority to issue detentions. Wendy and Amaya sat in desks next to each other as the unlucky teacher whose turn it was to supervise detention unfurled a newspaper at his workstation. The room was silent as a few other students slumped in their chairs alongside the two girls.
Thugs. That’s what Wendy thought they looked like. Then she chuckled out loud. Amaya gave her an odd look. Who was Wendy to think of these students as thugs? What could they have possibly done? Arrived late to class? Cursed out a teacher? Forgot their gym clothes at home? Wendy had literally just killed her English teacher. Okay, so he wasn’t dead yet, but alea iacta est.
That phrase always stuck with her from a Latin class she had in… Des Moines? No, maybe it was Cleveland… No, it was Des Moines. She remembered the kid who sat next to her in Latin always wore an Iowa Hawkeyes tee shirt. It’s funny the things that stick with you. The phrase meant, “The die is cast.” Suetonius said it to Julius Caesar during one of the Roman wars. The Romans always seemed to be fighting someone. Once the die was cast, there was no turning back. For Wendy, her die was cast almost immediately after her birth, and she was never given an opportunity to stop it or even slow it down.
“Alea iacta est,” she mumbled.
“What is wrong with you?” Amaya whispered. “Don’t tell me this is your first time in detention.”
“No. Of course not,” she whispered back.
She had stabbed people, poisoned others, strangled a few, even shot one, but she always followed the rules at school. The agency insisted on it. There was no need to draw attention from teachers, the principal, or foster parents.
What would be the ramifications of this? Teachers always threatened to put things on your permanent record. She doubted there was such a thing. Even if there were, she figured she wouldn’t be Wendy Lockheart much longer. Whatever identity she had next would have a clean slate. Maybe her foster parents would find out, but she doubted it. They didn’t question her when she came home late from school. She could be at an after-school club meeting or hanging with friends. They gave her some leeway. Wendy never gave them any reason not to trust her—another edict from the agency. A suspension they would hear about, but probably not a detention. She thought she was most likely safe. She would be on Mrs. Ratchford’s radar, but she was a sub—a temporary employee. Wendy leaned back in her chair, relaxing a bit. Things could be worse.
* * *
By the time Friday rolled around, Mr. Nelson, the school principal, joined Mrs. Ratchford in front of the English class.
“Class, this is difficult to say,” he began. “As you are aware, Mr. Godwin has been under the weather lately. I’m very sorry to inform you he passed away last night.”
“He went in his sleep and doctors say he didn’t suffer.”
“Mr. Godwin had some pre-existing medical conditions, and his immune system just wasn’t strong enough to fight off the flu.”
And there was the beauty of the entire plan. The agency knew exactly what pre-existing conditions Mr. Godwin had, and they knew his “flu” would be fatal. Such an elegant solution. There would be no investigation into foul play because he died of natural causes. They would never question Wendy or even suspect her.
“I know this can be very difficult for students to deal with,” Mr. Nelson continued. “I imagine you may have a lot of questions or want to talk to someone. Counselors are available for all of you.” Mr. Nelson hesitated. “You may also… hear some rumors… or read some things online.”
“Guys! Godwin was a full-on pedophile!” exclaimed a student from the back of the class. He held up his phone, which displayed a news article.
There was some rumbling among the class.
“Now, let’s allow the authorities to investigate,” Principal Nelson interjected.
“Seriously,” the student continued, “he had a hard drive full of kiddie porn and a studio in his house where he shot his own!”
This was not news to Wendy, naturally. It was all part of her briefing—the part to which she always paid attention. If she was going to eliminate the scum of the world, she wanted to know why. The rest of the details she generally ignored.
Removing dregs like Melvin from society was a tremendous source of accomplishment for Wendy. It’s what kept her loyal to the agency. That, plus the fact that killing people made her feel really, really good.