As soon as my school sent home the first calendar of the year, we all knew which days Mr. Carney would be substitute teaching — Cook’s Choice days.

Of course, those were the same days most of brought our lunch, because Cook’s Choice usually meant mystery meat and spinach.

But Mr. Carney seemed to love it.

And that led to all sorts of rumors about the man who also ran the local dairy. He had always run the local dairy, to hear the old folks tell it.

That just added to the crazy stories.

The most common and well-developed was that he had some sort of deal with the head cook — free milk with the little cartoon cow on the carton, the cow that looked strangely like Mr. Carney himself.

In exchange for …

The Cook’s Choice meal every few weeks?

Maybe, but the whispers were darker than that.

Less than a thousand people lived in my town, and there were only a couple hundred students in my school. And yet … at least three or four kids went missing every year, never to be heard from again.

At least half of those disappearances happened in the week leading up to Cook’s Choice days.

At least … that was the story. There was even a rumor the cops found some items of clothing from several missing children under a rock on the Carney farm.

Personally, I enjoyed his stories when he subbed for our teacher, so I never put much stock in the gossip.

I’ve long since moved away, started my own family.

I had forgotten all about Mr. Carney until my son came home from school tonight, griping about the Cook’s Choice lunch but raving about his substitute teacher.

“What was her name?” I asked.

His name,” my boy corrected, “Is Mr. Carney.”