Movement on the side of my rearview mirror caught my attention. A woman was sprinting from her car toward the door of the school. Another woman jumped from her minivan and, after a short pause, ran toward the school as well with her toddler in her arms.
They were mothers. Of course they wouldn’t let the logical side of their brain talk them into hesitation. The world was going to hell, and they were going to get their children to safety . . . wherever that was.
I shoved the gearshift into park and opened my door. I walked quickly, but as frantic mothers ran past me, I broke into a run as well.
Inside the building, mothers were either carrying their children down the hall to the parking lot, or they were quickly pushing through the doors of their children’s classrooms, not wasting time explaining to their teachers why they were leaving early.
I dodged frightened parents pulling their confused children along by the hand until I reached Zoe’s classroom. The door cracked against the concrete wall as I yanked it open.
The children looked at me with wide eyes. None of them had been picked up yet.
“Mr. Oxford?” Mrs. Earl said. She was frozen in the center of her classroom, surrounded by mini desks and chairs, and mini people. They were patiently waiting for her to hand out the papers they were to take home. Papers that wouldn’t matter a few hours from now.
“Sorry. I need Zoe.” Zoe was staring at me, too, unaccustomed to people barging in. She looked so small, even in the miniature chair she sat in. Her light-brown hair was curled under just so, barely grazing her shoulders, just the way she liked it. The greens and browns of her irises were visible even half a classroom away. She looked so innocent and vulnerable sitting there; all the children did.
“Braden?” Melissa George burst through the door, nearly running me down. “Come on, baby,” she said, holding her hand out to her son.
Braden glanced at Mrs. Earl, who nodded, and then the boy left his chair to join his mother. They left without a word.
“We have to go, too,” I said, walking over to Zoe’s desk.
“But my papers, Daddy.”
“We’ll get your papers later, honey.”
Zoe leaned to the side, looking around me to her cubby. “My backpack.”
I picked her up, trying to keep calm, wondering what the world would look like outside the school, or if I would reach my car and feel like a fool.
“Mr. Oxford?” Mrs. Earl said again, this time meeting me at the door. She leaned into my ear, staring into my eyes at the same time. “What’s going on?”
I looked around her classroom, to the watchful eyes of her young students. Pictures drawn clumsily in thick lines of crayon and bright educational posters hung haphazardly from the walls. The floor was littered with clippings from their artwork.
Every child in the room stared at me, waiting to hear why I’d decided to intrude. They would keep waiting. None of them could fathom the nightmare that awaited them just a few hours from now—if we had that much time—and I wasn’t going to cause a panic.
“You need to get these kids home, Mrs. Earl. You need to get them to their parents, and then you need to run.”
I didn’t wait for her reaction. Instead I bolted down the congested hallway. A traffic jam seemed to be causing a bottleneck at the main exit, so I pushed a side door to the pre-K playground open with my shoulder, and with Zoe in my arms, hopped the fence.
“Daddy! You’re not supposed to climb the fence!”
“I’m sorry, honey. Daddy’s in a hurry. We have to pick up Mommy and . . .”
My words trailed off as I fastened Zoe into her seatbelt. I had no idea where we would go. Where could we hide from something like this?
“Can we go to the gas station and get a slushie?”
“Not today, baby,” I said, kissing her forehead before slamming the door.
I tried not to run around the front. I tried, but the panic and adrenaline pushed me forward. The door slammed shut, and I tore out of the parking lot, unable to control the fear that if I slowed down even a little bit, something terrible would happen.
One hand on the steering wheel, and the other holding my cell phone to my ear, I drove home, ignoring traffic lights and speed limits and trying to be careful not to get nailed by other panicked drivers.
“Daddy!” Zoe yelled when I drove over a bump too fast. “What are you doing?”
“Sorry, Zoe. Daddy’s in a hurry.”
“Are we late?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer that. “I hope not.”
Zoe’s expression signaled her disapproval. She always made an effort to parent Aubrey and me. Probably because Aubrey wasn’t much of one, and it was clear on most days that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.
I pressed on the gas, trying to avoid the main roads home. Every time I tried to call Aubrey from my cell, I got a weird busy signal. I should have known when I got there that something was wrong. I should have immediately put the sedan in reverse and raced away, but the only thing going through my head was how I would convince Aubrey to leave her goddamned computer, what few things we would grab, and how much time I should allow to grab them. An errant thought ran through my head about how much time it would take the Internet to cease, and how ironic it was that a viral outbreak would save our marriage. There were so many should haves in that moment, but I ignored them all.
“Aubrey!” I yelled as I opened the door. The most logical place to look was the den. The empty blue office chair was a surprise. So much so that I froze, staring at the space as if my vision would correct itself and she would eventually appear, her back to me, hunched over the desk while she moved just enough to maneuver the mouse.
“Where’s Mommy?” Zoe asked, her voice sounding even smaller than usual.
A mixture of alarm and curiosity made me pause. Aubrey’s ass had flowed over and cratered in the deteriorated cushion of that office chair for years. No noise in the kitchen, and the downstairs bathroom door was open, the room dark.
“Aubrey!” I yelled from the second step of the stairs, waiting for her to round the corner above me and descend each step more dramatically than the last. At any moment, she would breathe her signature sigh of annoyance and bitch at me for something—anything—but as I waited, it became obvious that she wouldn’t.
“We’re going to be very late,” Zoe said, looking up at me.