CAIN HAD GIVEN her fifteen minutes to make it to the elementary school, but Elizabeth managed to make it in ten.
Only pausing through stop signs, making every traffic light except one, she was doing nearly fifty in a thirty-five zone when she came around the bend of the development that lead to the school and saw the fire trucks, ambulances, police cars.
The sudden salvo of so many flashing lights caused her heart to skip. She pressed down on the brakes so hard the tires screeched as her Corolla came to a halt. A horn blared behind her and a car swerved past her, its driver shouting at her in frustration.
She glanced in the rearview mirror, conscious now that she wasn’t alone in the world, especially on this street. There was a car farther back coming her way and she hit the gas again, pulling over to the curb.
Her hands shaking, her heart pounding, she turned off the car and got out and hurried toward the large group of mostly children fanned out on the soccer field. Teachers were circulating among the students, and there were a handful of police officers and firemen talking to each other and into radios.
Elizabeth came up to the closest teacher—a young man named Mr. Daniels—and said, her voice a little too rushed, “What happened?”
He stood with his arms crossed, holding a clipboard at his side. He glanced at her, glanced away, then glanced back when he recognized her as a school parent. He looked past her, as if what he had to say was completely confidential, before whispering, “Bomb threat.”
The school itself stood maybe two hundred yards away, all that brick and mortar and glass much too close in the event a bomb really did detonate. There was nothing here to protect the children, nothing at all, but Elizabeth reasoned that there wasn’t a safe place to take them, not here in the middle of this neighborhood, not to shield over five hundred children from an explosion.
“I’m looking for my son,” she said.
The young teacher uncrossed his arms, looked down at his clipboard. “What’s your son’s—”
She was moving before he could finish the question, having spotted Joyce Gibbons, her son’s teacher. Weaving in and out of children, some sobbing, some laughing, she noticed that Joyce was talking with Mrs. Ross, the assistant principal. Mrs. Ross holding the standard school-issue radio in her hand, a big black bulky thing, saying something to Joyce as she pointed across the field toward a row of newly developed houses.
They must have heard her coming, or sensed her, or maybe Mr. Daniels had a radio of his own and warned them of her arrival, because they turned simultaneously, their bodies shifting to greet her.
She said, breathless, “Where’s Matthew?”
The teacher and assistant principal glanced at each other for a moment, long enough for a look of exhaustion to pass between them, Elizabeth no doubt the first in a very long line of parents who would be arriving with demands to see their child.
Then Mrs. Gibbons, a plastic smile on her face, said, “He’s here.”
Relief flooded her at once, her eyes closing, her shoulders lifting as she took in a large gulp of air and released it. She wanted to drop to the ground, scream her frustrations and happiness into the grass, but she managed to stay on her feet, a smile creeping on her face, as she said, “Where is he then? I need to see him.”
Mrs. Gibbons lifted her clipboard, began shuffling papers, Elizabeth noticing from where she stood it was a list of the entire elementary school. Beside each name was a perfectly formed checkmark in blue ink, the pen of which rested in the crook of Mrs. Gibbons’ right ear.
As Joyce Gibbons flipped through the attendance her posture changed. A slight scowl formed on her face. She glanced up at Mrs. Ross, glanced back at the clipboard, then said to the assistant principal, “Maybe he’s with Clark?”
The relief that had so quickly flooded her now dissipated, leaving her dry and hollow, and before Mrs. Ross put the radio to her mouth and asked Clark (the school’s principal) if Matthew Walter was included in his group, Elizabeth knew why Cain had given her the extra time to make it here. He’d wanted her to see the fire trucks and ambulances and police cars, have another panic attack as her imagination threw its worst at her. Then, just as he had planned, she had dived into the sea of students, searching for her son, maybe finding a teacher who would tell her that her son was fine, safe, here with the rest of the students, and that the blessed relief she’d felt for only an instant would pour into her until, when she asked for her son, demanded he be brought to her, she would receive the answer he had known she would, the one that Mrs. Ross, having listened to the radio, now looked at her with just a glance that told her the whole truth:
Her son was missing.