The two girls slipped away.
They circled around to the side of the school, going over the hoods of cars like cats then clinging to the low fence like lizards, careful not to touch the ground. They wore slim shoes and slight dresses, their hair fastened to their foreheads even though the air after the rain was almost cold.
They stopped at the corner, still stuck to the fence, identical in everything except the number of freckles on their faces. Behind them, Ms. Young was counting the heads of their classmates. Mr. Strickland was walking up and down the street scratching his bald head and the other teachers were herding their classes into order and occasionally looking over their shoulders where men moved toward the school.
Around the corner, the two girls went tottering along a low stone wall with their arms held out, tilting first one way and then the other. Little pools of rainwater had gathered in the dips and crevices atop the wall and the trees were still dripping from the storm. At the end of the rock wall they jumped over to the monkey bars, still not touching the ground. From the school the loudspeaker squawked once and was silent.
They jumped from the monkey bars to the jungle gym. The newly-gathered water beneath them was deep and wide and they stood there on the little platform for a moment looking down at themselves before remembering their eyes were supposed to be closed. They swung across to the far platform and went along the rope bridge and then jumped down onto the old railroad ties encircling the playground. A line of cars came down the street toward the school and they could see the drivers’ faces peering at them with eyes as white as votive candles.
Young Lions at Naptime
It had been raining at first recess so Ms. Young had to keep them inside.
“Pretend you’re an elephant,” she said. “You have a long trunk. No, Jeremy, we don’t hit others with our trunks. We just swing them. You can eat grass with your trunk and drink water with your trunk and trumpet your trunk. Softly, please. Let’s be considerate of the other elephant classrooms.
“Now let’s be lions. Jeremy, stop biting Jenny. Just walk around in a circle like the other lions.
“Ok, tigers. Now bears. Sure, fish. Flop on the carpet. Not into others, Jeremy. Just flop in place.”
Jenny liked to pretend she was a platypus. Jeremy liked to pretend he was a fighter pilot, and Joel held his hands out like he was riding a motorcycle. Tommy was a race car driver, and Shawn was a major league pitcher. Becky was a horse and Susan was a cat and Hannah and Jody sometimes went still as statues and did not move all through recess, so silent that Ms. Young could not see them.
Ms. Young liked to pretend she was a child again. Or that she was much older, thirty maybe, or thirty-five. She did not imagine a child of her own because she had so many, but sometimes she imagined herself pregnant, her arms curled around her curved stomach.
After they had been bears and baboons and bananas, after earthworms and egrets and echidnas, Ms. Young said they were bats. Because bats sleep during the day. “Everyone get your mat,” she said. “No, Jeremy, you cannot hang upside down from the ceiling. You are all sleepy. Listen to the rain on the windows. It’s a nice sleepy fall day early in the school year. Yes, even bats go to school.”
Some rainy days they pretended to be lions and tigers and bears and some days they pretended to be clowns or killer whales or coxswains. Some days Ms. Young read to them Where the Wild Things Are and sometimes, right before naps, she read to them Goodnight Moon, whispering toward the end. Some days they told Ms. Young they loved her, and later, when they were asleep on their little mats and she was staring out the window at the rain, she pressed the heel of her hand hard against her cheek.
Some nights Ms. Young sat up with her legs curled beneath her drinking wine in the light of a floor lamp thinking up things they could be the next day. They could be whatever they wanted, she thought. There was no harm in pretending.
Because there was no way to cross the street, the two girls tip-toed on the white-painted crosswalk, eyes open only enough to see the road after checking both ways. Hannah had blondish-brown hair and Jody had brownish-blond hair and they both loved watermelon but not cantaloupe. They both liked spaghetti but not linguine. Blue but not red. Tuesday more than Thursday, and Monday more than Friday, because everyone else hated Monday and they felt sorry for it because of that.
Across the street they hopped up again on the rock wall that ran along the sidewalk and past the library, the librarians gathered in the wet grass out front, craning their awful faces toward the school. On Wednesdays when they went to the library, Ms. Young would kick off her heels and balance atop the rock wall with them and they would all hold their arms out like bees or hummingbirds and some days they would say “The drop is a thousand feet and if you fall off you are dead,” but no one ever fell and even if they did Ms. Young said she would catch them and they would not be dead.
They went past houses with white fences out front, little streams running through the ditches and flattening the grass. The cars going along the street slowed to look at the little girls. They turned at the corner and went past the big Baptist church and the funeral home. It was hard balancing atop the brick wall with their eyes squinted, but they were still pretending from earlier, still staying off the ground.
They cut across an empty lot, walking on bricks and sticks and an old foundation where a house had once been. They climbed up into a sycamore and scrambled across the roof of an old shed, then crossed a fence and went through the trees like monkeys.
“I want to be a monkey,” Hannah said, whispering, because Ms. Young had put her hands over her mouth and told them to be very quiet. Pretend you’re a mouse, she had said. Sometimes when she told them to be quiet she said it like Elmer Fudd, that she was hunting wabbits, but she did not say that earlier, only to be quiet, please, children, it’s very important you remain quiet now. Like a mouse, Jenny said in a tiny voice, one so small they could hardly hear it. Now Hannah’s voice sounded loud after being quiet for so long. They sat in the cradle of a crabapple where they could hear cars passing—a lot of cars, driving fast.
“Or a bird,” Jody said, whispering even smaller than Jenny had in the hallway. “So we can fly.”
“So we never have to walk home from school.”
“Because the buses weren’t running.”
“Because we couldn’t touch the floor.”
“Because the floor was lava,” Jody said, swinging through the trees.
When Recess Isn’t Canceled Even After the Rain
She kept extra clothes in her classroom because someone always fell into the mud, usually Jeremy, usually when he was trying to jump over the largest puddle, which he did most days, like today, so she took him back inside and waited while he changed clothes in the little bathroom. She watched the children out the window. Sometimes they ran screaming with their hands in the air but through the window the sound was muted so it seemed as if they were screaming in a vacuum.
“Ms. Young?” Jeremy said. He had finished changing clothes and was standing watching her as she watched the other children out the muted window under the gray clouds where no lightning had yet come. The clothes she brought were too big for him. Jeremy was very small, frail as two sticks stuck together. She rolled up the sleeves and the pants and tucked the shirt tail into the waistband.
“Do I look funny?” Jeremy said, and Ms. Young had to bite her lip to keep from laughing, because he did look funny, because all her children looked funny to her, funny and wonderful, when they weren’t scaring her to death because of all the things in the world that might happen to them.
Close to Home
When they came out of the trees they could see the high school, evacuated now. They ran along the bleachers at the football field and jumped back up on the fence. They hopped from the fence to the retaining wall and went along once again with arms out to their sides, around the back of the school where a few teachers would normally be climbing into their cars.
From behind the school they could see their house in the little subdivision screened by a stand of trees. Jody took a deep breath. Hannah did the same. They had to go across a short strip of ground to get to the trees, and they looked at one another, finally nodding, both of them thinking that Ms. Young had said lava would not hurt them if they were only on it for a few seconds, both of them hoping they wouldn’t die here, from lava, after they had almost made it home, where they could pretend they were birds. Or monkeys. Or monkey-birds. Or lizards or leopards or lions, who aren’t afraid of anything. Or mice, so small they are never seen.
“I want to be an alligator,” Jeremy said, chewing with his mouth open. The cafeteria noise rose and fell in waves. Mostly rose. Some days Ms. Young wondered if part of growing up was testing how loud you could talk. Some days Mr. Strickland would scold them, asking if they simply had to talk at top volume, and some days Ms. Young thought that yes, they did, so she went around behind Mr. Strickland whispering for the children to pretend they were mice.
“Alligators don’t get to go out to recess,” she told Jeremy, and Jeremy closed his mouth, though Ms. Young knew there would be no recess. The rain had stopped but already gray clouds were rolling in again. By the time Ms. Young got them all in a line after lunch, the lights in the outside hallways would be on and the rain would be coming down again, gentle as an afternoon nap. For the rest of the day the classroom would be dark despite the fluorescent lights. The lights would flicker in the lightning and the children flinch in the thunder. While the lights flickered and the children flinched, Ms. Young would go down the rows whispering for them to pretend they were turtles, and protected. She would tell them when it was safe to come out.
Home, Part One
They ran across the street, stepping quickly across the asphalt until they could jump into the trees. Still pretending. “Because it’s fun,” Ms. Young had told them, “and because sometimes we can’t do things without pretending we are animals unafraid, like leopards or lynx, or when we need to remember to be quiet as quail.”
They went climbing tree to tree, monkeys again, through the little stretch that separated the subdivision from the school. When they reached the edge of the trees they paused, breathing heavily, very tired now after having come all the way from school without touching the ground hardly even once, and then only because they had to, and not long enough to be burned by the lava, which must have somehow risen up through the earth, Jeremy had said.
Jody turned around in the tree so Hannah could reach into her backpack and punch the code into the phone that opened the garage door, and then they were sprinting, across the street hardly even touching the burning molten ground, springing onto the mailbox and from there to the trashcans and then to the wooden railings of the compost pile and then onto the driveway. Hannah had already hit the code to close the garage door and they went sliding beneath it as it rattled down. In the dark garage they slipped off their backpacks, standing on old mats their father left down over the oil spots, even here, for they weren’t sure anymore what places were safe and what places were not.
It was still raining, heavy gray sheets falling over the field. It ran down the windows and poured from the gutters into little streams along the pregnant ditches. Ms. Young, watching the rain, wondered what it would be like to be pregnant.
She had been reading to them Oh, the Places You’ll Go! while they all looked whispering out the window. Days like this it seemed all they did was look out the window wishing they could go somewhere else. Jeremy couldn’t sit still and Jenny became infected by Jeremy and Ms. Young thought about taking them out in the rain anyway, buttoning everyone into their yellow slickers like Christopher Robin in The Blustery Day, watching them run through the rain with their hands held up, screaming, though she wouldn’t hear under the heavy hammering of the rain on the roofs of the houses in the places where we live.
But she heard the heavy roll of thunder and saw the fast flash of lightning. The children saw it, too. Jeremy’s face was working itself into an outbreak, either tears or terror, and Jenny was inching back toward her cubby where she kept her stuffed platypus, which she snuggled in times of distress, so Ms. Young, with one last wistful look out the window, stood quickly and straightened her skirt and said “The floor is lava,” and watched them scream and scramble for a chair, the top of a desk, Jeremy jumping to the old steaming radiator and Joel hanging from the coat hooks and Jenny hiding inside her cubby hole. Ms. Young took two steps and sat on the edge of her desk.
“You cannot touch the floor,” she said. “The floor is lava. With sharks. And alligators, and all manner of fearsome creature.”
“Sharks can’t live in lava, Ms. Young,” Jeremy said. He said it patiently, the way you’d explain something to a cat.
She widened her eyes slightly, leaned forward conspiratorially. “These can,” she said ominously, and Jeremy’s mouth spread in a wicked grin as he clung to the radiator. The lights flickered and the children flinched in the following thunder, but they were more worried about the floor, which had magically and mysteriously turned to lava. With sharks. And alligators. And all manner of fearsome creature. They had forgotten about the rain, and recess, and the small silent houses many of them would go home to, riding through the fall afternoon staring out the rainy windows of the bus.
She was thinking about the bus she had ridden as a child, to these same classrooms, through fields frosted in the early morning and mist rising from the cattle ponds. Through mornings with rainwater running down the windows, obscuring the outside world. Coming home to a dark cold house, waiting for her father to come home with his hands cracked in the blueback cold, which wasn’t a memory but a line from Hayden she had read in college that had always stuck with her, and every time she read it in the dark classroom she thought of her father kneeling before the fire in the late cold afternoons.
Then Jeremy slipped from his seat on the radiator and Joel jumped from the coat hooks, not quite making it to his desk, both their feet touching the floor, and the other kids called for them to be out. In the back of the room Hannah and Jody were pretending to be statues where they stood on their sleeping mats, which Ms. Young supposed was technically off the floor. She looked at her watch. The rain still fell down. There was still 23 minutes left in recess and another hour left in the day and it was too early for anyone to be out. They’d had no recess since before noon, no time to run and throw their arms up and scream, and Jeremy would sulk and perhaps storm if he were forced to sit out, so she told them that lava sometimes cooled slightly on top, and if you were quick as a hiccup you could touch it—slightly, children, ever so slightly—as you went from place to place.
Which of course sent them swinging around the room. Clinging to the backs of chairs, flinging themselves from wall to wall. A game of it. Because it was dark with the flickering lights. Because children needed to play, to let their imaginations explode. Because pretending was sometimes the only way to get through the day.
She turned back to the window, but the rain was running from the roof and the windows were obscured, the way the bus windows were when she was a child riding home toward a cold house. She went to the door and opened it onto the outside and stood there watching the rain come down, so it was, in the first lessening of the rain, that she saw the gunman climb out of his car and come toward the school wielding weapons she had only seen in war.
When the garage door had rattled to a stop they stood in darkness, Jody looking at Hannah and Hannah looking back.
“Here?” Jody said.
Hannah looked at the thin garage door. “I don’t think so.”
They scooted the mat close to the door so Hannah could unlock it, then stood there as the door swung slowly open, wondering what would be waiting. When there was nothing hiding inside—no man, no monster—they went into the kitchen by hanging on the counters, lifting their feet off the floor and scooting on their elbows, around past the sink and into the dining room, jumping to the chairs. They stood on the chairs and each took a second chair and set it a few feet in front of the one on which they stood, then stepped over and reached back and got the first chair and put it in front of the second, and so doing moved their way down the hall.
In the long hallway Hannah placed her chair beneath the trapdoor to the attic. She stood on her tiptoes and grabbed the cord. With Jody helping, they unfurled the ladder and then began to climb.
There was a little dormer window that shed light into the attic. They stood on the ladder with only their heads stuck up and peered around until their eyes adjusted and they could see that nothing was hiding in the corners. They came up then, Jody reaching down behind her to pull up the ladder and shut the trap door.
They stepped atop old boxes of books and photo albums and clothes they couldn’t wear anymore. By the window sat a rocking chair their mother had used to rock them when they were infants, sitting by the window downstairs, faint moonlight coming in, singing softly to them as their eyes slipped closed. They huddled together in the rocker now, staring at the trap door, both of them hoping nothing came up through it.
“Here?” Jody said. “It has to be safe here,” but Hannah was remembering the moment when Ms. Young’s face changed. They had been playing the floor is lava and then Ms. Young’s face changed and then there came what sounded like quick claps of thunder and then they were hiding, the floor still lava because Ms. Young had not said it wasn’t. She was thinking of her parents, Hannah was, who would have been called or would have heard on the news and would come screaming home to find them. They would be driving fast as any animal that ever lived, a cheetah or a zebra or a peregrine falcon, their father’s eyes big as Ms. Young’s when she first saw the man walking up the sidewalk, but she wasn’t sure, Hannah wasn’t, if it would be fast enough, because already she felt the need to flee.
“No,” she told Jody, who was nodding her head in agreement. “Not here.”
They stood then, the chair rocking with their movement, and jumped to the boxes of books, Where the Wild Things Are hidden away now that they no longer read it, over the old photographs of themselves when they were younger, and to the trap door. Hannah pushed it down. Jody went first. They reached the chairs they had left in the hall and made their way back to the kitchen. They went around the kitchen climbing on the counter and back into the garage on the mats their father used to cover the oil spots. Because they could not touch the ground. Because the ground was lava. From the middle of the earth. Because some things could not be unpretended so you had to keep on pretending.
They watched the garage door scroll up. They found the rolling thingy their father used to get up under the car to change the oil and they went rattling down the driveway and along the street to the back of the little subdivision where the woods closed in. Where they went on, swinging through the trees, still pretending the floor was lava, that hell had come up through the earth, and they had to keep running, until it was safe.
The Shadow on the Mantel
She swung shut the door and locked it from a key she kept around her neck because she was once a child who came home to a cold house, and standing on the steps as the dark fell early she wanted the door unlocked as quick as she could, quicker than hailstones or hiccups.
Or gunshots, she thought as the first shot fired. She turned the key in the lock, hands fumbling now, the key bouncing against her breasts as she let it fall. She saw a sharp stab of lightning to the north and then came the loud crack of thunder and behind it came more gunshots and she thought she could hear screaming now.
“Get into the restroom,” she said, pointing to the tiny little room beside the water fountain at the back. “Everyone. Now.”
“Is the floor still lava?” Jeremy said, crouched like a gargoyle atop his desk, but some of the other children had heard the shots and knew they were not thunder. They had seen the white pallor of her face, though they wouldn’t know the word pallor and might never know it, she thought, moving toward the bathroom door with her arms held wide, sweeping the children along with her, wondering how many other teachers had their doors open to watch the rain and how many would get them closed. The gunfire was louder now, and the screaming. She could smell smoke. Jeremy was hopping on one foot, asking if the floor was still lava as she herded him toward the bathroom. The twins were moving as well, and that was good, she thought, because sometimes they were hard to get moving.
“Lava lives in the earth,” Jeremy was saying, and Julie told them that lava was hell.
“A lake of burning fire,” she said, about the time Jeremy asked if someone smelled smoke, and Ms. Young did, but it wasn’t regular smoke, not from fire, but from firing.
She got the kids in the bathroom and shut the door behind her. She could hear them grunting and gasping, elbowing each other. Julie was still talking about hell, and Jeremy was standing on the toilet because he didn’t want to touch the ground if lava was oozing up from the earth, because why else would there be smoke and shots and screams, and Ms. Young—who suddenly felt as young as the children hidden behind her in the bathroom—thought there had indeed come hell on earth.
Then Jeremy was crying, saying he didn’t want to go to hell, and Ms. Young could not quiet him for she had seen the shadow of the gunman cross the mantel above her door. She heard the handle rattle. She waited, breath stuck somewhere near the point the blood begins to circulate through the body.
She closed her eyes. The children were crying. They were trying to get out but Ms. Young could not let them out and so she held shut the door until she heard the whine of the sirens and then there were more gunshots, many more. The sirens cried like tortured souls. She remembered her father building the fire. His hands cracked in the blueblack cold. The children thinking of hell. What did I know? Hayden says.
It was quiet for a long time and then she heard a loudspeaker squawk once.
Heart hammering like the sudden sounds of gunfire and the sudden screams she wished she had never heard, Ms. Young knew she had to lead the children out past what would be there. Past the rooms with open doors and what lay within. Past the blood and bits of brains. The opened unseeing eyes. Through the smoke and stink of gun exhaust, the cordite and spent cartridges. And hope they wouldn’t see, that they could pretend. Because some things could never be unseen. Some things you cannot pretend never happened.
She creaked opened the door. Jeremy was wide-eyed, whether in fear or wonder she did not know. She did not know if any of them understood what was happening. If they ever would. If they would someday take a tire iron to their wives or beat their husbands with hammers. Or take a drink, and then another, trying to pretend it had never happened. Jenny had wet herself and Julie was crying. Hannah and Jody had gone still as statues and she wondered if she could ever get them to run.
“We’re going to run real quick,” Ms. Young said, her voice shaking like a seal.
“Like the floor is lava,” Jeremy said.
Ms. Young set her shoulders against all the awful things she would see. “Like the floor is lava. With sharks, and alligators, and all manner of fearsome creature. We’re going to run real quick, and we’re going to hold each other’s hands, and we’re going to keep our eyes closed so we don’t see what’s out there. Hold hands everyone. Close your eyes. We’re going, and we’re not going to stop until it’s safe.”