LEAVING SCHOOL WASN’T as easy as she had thought it would be.
Just as Cain quit giving her instructions and disconnected, the bell rang, signaling the end of lunch. A moment later the door opened and in came Mary Boyle, her long gray hair trailing behind her, Mary’s lips pressed tightly together in a strange kind of smile as she approached the desk.
Elizabeth said, “I have to leave.”
Mary ignored this statement completely, striding right up to her and gently squeezing her arm. “He shouldn’t have signaled you out like that in there—believe me, we all agree about that—but you really shouldn’t have pushed him down like you did. He was attempting to apologize, after all.”
Before Mary could respond, the sound of frantic footsteps filled the hallway outside the door, sneakers squeaking against the linoleum, and then the door opened and the students began trickling in, first Roxane Leonard, her dark hair wrapped in a tight braid, followed by Kevin and Justin Humphrey, twins identical in every way except a slight birthmark on Justin’s left ear.
More of the children entered the classroom, one after another, and though Elizabeth tried not to—though she tried to keep her mind as blank as she possibly could—she saw Matthew’s face in each of their faces, his eyes, his ears, his nose, even his crooked smile, and then Dillon Bockian came in and the tears threatened again, Elizabeth wanting to rush to him and take him in an embrace and tell him that he didn’t have to be scared of anything, he was a bright boy and would always be bright.
But no, wait, she couldn’t do that, because some psychopath had taken her child, someone who had given her instructions, a deadline, and that deadline had been for five minutes and now how many precious seconds had she wasted here with Mary Boyle?
“I threw up.”
Mary turned to her, raising an eyebrow. “I beg your pardon?”
For an instant her hands clenched into fists, the nails digging into her palms, Elizabeth wondering what kind of idiot still said I beg your pardon? these days. Mary Boyle, that’s who, and while Elizabeth had heard her say it countless times before—mostly during class when a student mumbled an answer to a question—the fact that this woman would say those four words now, to her face, while her child was someplace unsafe …
“I vomited. I’ve been sick all morning. Something I ate for breakfast, I think.”
“You know,” Mary Boyle said, turning toward her desk to start tidying up the scattered papers, “food sickness usually isn’t the very last thing you ate. Most people think that it is, but … Ms. Walter? Ms. Walter, where are you going?”
Elizabeth, her bag hanging off her shoulder, headed straight for the door. She had to pause as a few more students straggled into the classroom, each of them smiling at her and waving and saying, “Hi, Ms. Walter,” but she ignored them all and then was through the door, her pace increasing with each step.
How many seconds had passed, turning into minutes, how many of those minutes had expired so far? Cain had only given her five, no more, and she had wasted them on Mary Boyle.
“Sarah?” said a voice behind her, what sounded like Eileen’s, but Elizabeth kept walking, headed for the nearest exit, deciding she wasn’t going to check out first with the office, why should she? Yes, normally she would, but this wasn’t a normal day, far from it, and besides—thinking this as she pushed through the exit door, took in a deep breath of the crisp fall air—a half hour ago she had been Sarah Walter, a teacher’s assistant, but now she was Elizabeth Piccioni, a person she thought she would never be again.
Her phone began vibrating as she reached the parking lot. She hesitated, then started running, her sneakers slapping against the macadam as she rushed for where her car was parked.
But the phone would vibrate only four times before going to voicemail—she knew this for a fact—and she couldn’t let that happen, not to Cain, who had promised extreme violence against her son in the event she failed to comply with his instructions.
On its third vibration she pulled the phone from her bag and placed it to her ear, nearly shouting, “Yes, I’m here.”
“Are you in your car yet?”
She suddenly stopped running, not wanting the sound of her footsteps or her ragged breathing to give away the fact that she had not yet made it to her car.
“Yes,” she said, as calmly and coolly as possible.
“I don’t believe you.”
She closed her eyes, started forward, walking as quietly as she could. “But I am.”
“Then beep the horn.”
Her eyes snapped open and her head twisted back and forth on her neck. Vehicles surrounded her but none were unlocked—at least none that she knew of—and none had their windows down.
Elizabeth said, “But won’t that draw attention to me?”
“What do you care if attention is drawn to you?”
“I just left school without permission. Honking my horn in the parking lot might not be the wisest decision.”
“Are you seriously questioning me?”
She turned to the closest car, a blue Saturn, and tried the door. Locked.
“No,” she said. “But I—”
“Beep the goddamn horn or else I’ll kill your son right now.”
She hurried to the next car, an aging Buick, and tried the door knowing it wouldn’t open. But it did. She leaned in and pressed down on the center of the steering wheel, convinced for an instant that the car’s horn was broken—that it wouldn’t even give off a pathetic little toot—but there it sounded, just as strong as she had hoped, breaking the fragile silence of the day.
“There,” she said. “Happy?”
Cain didn’t answer for the longest time, and she worried that she had somehow lost him, and that in losing him she had lost Matthew. Then he said, “The elementary school, you have fifteen minutes to get there,” and clicked off.
She stood for a moment, still leaning into the Buick, noticing for the first time that Mardi Gras beads hung from the rearview mirror. She didn’t want to move, didn’t want to break whatever little luck she had managed to grasp. Because not only had she beeped the horn when Cain requested it, but she had inadvertently proved that he wasn’t close by watching her. Keeping tabs on her all the same, yes, but he couldn’t see her.
Which, she quickly realized, wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
Because if Cain wasn’t close, that meant Matthew wasn’t close either, which meant the two of them could be anywhere.
Elizabeth sprinted for her car.