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It was 7:00 in the morning when the man with the sad hazel eyes asked for a loaf of cinnamon bread and a cup of coffee.
Kelly had never seen the man before in her life, and she knew almost everyone in Cannon Falls. Hardly anyone showed up at the Hi-Quality bakery at this hour; the ovens weren’t even turned on yet and the display cases were bare and solemn in the semi-darkness of the shall shop. “I just started the first batch of dough,” she replied to the man’s request. “It won’t be ready for another forty-five minutes or so.”
“I can wait,” the man replied softly, running a hand over his lean, clean-shaven face. It was a strange face, untouched by a razor or beard, and yet the sad deepness of his eyes revealed him to be much older than he looked. “The coffee’s hot if you want some,” Kelly stated, pointing to the humming machine in the corner. “Help yourself.”
“Thank you,” said the man, shoving his keys into his pocket. He walked over to the machine with slow, deliberate steps, every muscle under control in his tall, evenly proportioned frame. His long white fingers held the Styrofoam cup perfectly still. Kelly found her eyes straying across his black jacket, down the long torso to the faded khaki slacks and once-white sneakers. A piece of silver duct tape had been carefully wrapped around the right toe and tucked under the laces. “They’re my favorite pair,” the man explained as if reading her mind. “I’ve worn them since high school and I just couldn’t bear to part with them. You know how that is, don’t you?”
Kelly raised her head and met the sad hazel eyes. “Y-yes, I do,” she stammered. “Did you go to high school here- in Cannon Falls?”
The main raised the cup to his lips; his throat made an odd sound as he swallowed. “No, no,” he said softly, “I’ve never been here before. It’s a nice little town, isn’t it?” He pierced her with his eyes again and she felt her body recoil a fraction of an inch. “How long have you been working here?”
“J-just a few weeks,” Kelly found herself stuttering. “I needed an after-school job to pay for my car insurance and this was the only one I could get.” His eyes kept staring at her. Men had stared at her before, it was true, but not like this. There was something vulnerable behind those eyes, something sad and pitying. Pity. That was it. It made her skin prickle.
“What year are you in high school?” he asked, twirling the cup around in his slender white hands. Kelly steadied herself. “I’m a senior.” Why was he asking her all these questions?
“Is it a lot of work? The homework, I mean. You look like you play some kind of sport. It must be hard to keep up with both.” Kelly felt her hands clench. They were perfectly honest questions, of course, but they made her uncomfortable for some reason. “I’m on the dance team. I just made varsity this year.”
The man calmly surveyed her with his large eyes. They were clear and honest; he appeared to be perfectly legitimate. “My daughter was on varsity, years ago,” he said quietly. “It’s a lot of work, but it pays off. She was so happy then.”
Kelly almost laughed; he looked no older than herself, and yet he was a father and talking about his teenage daughter long ago. “It is a lot of work,” she agreed. “But I manage. My boyfriend helps me study- he’s a real whiz at math and stuff.”
Those eyes. They chilled her to the very bone. Kelly almost wanted to slap him, throw something over his face, duck behind the counter to keep their searching clarity away from her. She inched towards the doorway to the kitchen. “I guess I’d better get your bread going now,” she murmured.
The man took another swallow of coffee. “Don’t worry about that, please. I didn’t really come in here for food, or coffee.”
“What do you want, then?” Kelly felt a tiny speck of fear--- real fear. She was alone with this man, and his eyes were so terrible and sad.
“I came in here to kill you.”
He said it so softly and gently that she wondered at first if she had heard him right. His face was so smooth, so calm, those hazel eyes storms within themselves. Worst of all, he was crying and not making a sound. Clear, salty tears were channeling slowly down his cheeks and neck, while his eyes never broke contact with hers.
“W-what? Are you crazy?” Kelly was really frightened now, her hand self-consciously groping for the cell phone in her pocket. The man smiled, a sad, sweet smile. His eyelashes were wet and dark and made him look as though he was wearing mascara. “No, I am perfectly sane. I am as sane as you are. I’ve never killed anyone before.”
“Then…then why me?” Kelly burst out, on the verge of tears herself. It was all so strange and horrible to see this man cry at the same time that he wanted to murder her. It was eerie, it was weird, it didn’t make sense. Was she even awake?
“I’m sorry,” said the man, and he truly looked it. “I didn’t want you to be afraid of me.”
Kelly’s hand had found her cell phone; she quickly pushed open the sliding keypad inside her pocket. “Stop right there,” she warned, her voice trembling. “I’ll call the police and they’ll be here in two minutes.”
“It won’t do you any good, Kelly,” the man said gently. Tears were still running down his smooth cheeks, spattering on the scuffed tile floor. “The police won’t arrest me. I haven’t done anything to you, have I?”
“You just threatened to kill me!” Kelly burst out. The man shook his head and held out his slim, white hand. “You are afraid. You know who I am, Kelly.”
Kelly bit her lip, shaking. The man held his hand out further. “I know it’s hard. It’s a good life here and you’ve grown to love it. But you love it too much. I have orders to kill you. I’m sorry.”
“I don’t want to die!” Kelly cried. “I can’t leave everything…like this! I can’t just go! I don’t want to!”
“I can’t blame you,” the man sighed. “We should have never allowed it in the first place; you were too young, and now you’ve become too much like them. I went back when they wanted me. But you are a risk--- you don’t want to leave, and that is a bad example. I’m sorry, Kelly. We don’t do this very often, maybe once in 10 years, but rules are rules. You understand, don’t you?”
“It’s not fair,” Kelly sobbed. The cell phone in her hand fell to the floor and skittered under a display case. “I don’t want to go back. It’s so horrible there. Why does the Party allow us to come down here and make a good life for ourselves when we have to leave it all behind? It makes no sense…no sense…” She had come out from behind the display case now. The man quietly took her hand and examined her with his intense wet eyes. “I know,” he breathed. “It isn’t fair, but we must be grateful that we’re allowed even this, to see what it would be like if we really were free human beings. The Party has been very generous, though, and you must not fight them.”
“What about-what about my boyfriend, and school…and everything? Won’t they wonder…”
“No,” the man assured her in his soft, low voice. “Here, it will only seem as though you’ve died in a car accident, or been kidnapped, or something that most young people die of here. The Party has arranged all that. You must leave your body behind- you’ll get your original form back once we leave. But since you’ve been stubborn, there will be punishment, and possibly death. That’s the only way they can uphold the system, of course.”
Kelly swiped at her eyes. “I-I don’t want my old body back,” she choked. “I love having long hair, and two legs, and being able to taste things, and…”
The man gently tugged on her hand, leading her towards the door of the dim, empty bakery. The sun had just broken over the horizon; the quiet main street and all the quaint little buildings on it were bathed in soft light. The air was fresh and damp, mixed with the odor of gasoline, of rusted metal, of the dirt of city streets. Such a quiet little town, not quite awake.
“Come,” said the man, and his pitying gaze made her mouth go dry. “The ship is waiting.”