Ms. Campbell nodded at the boy’s sobbing mother. Give me a fucking break, she thought, then took her hand and squeezed gently.
The father stood several steps back. Teacher lounge rumors rumbled that the divorce was from him running around. Husbands needed to stay the first-born or they relocated, as Ms. Campbell well knew. Though this one, with his sunken cheeks and stale smell? The child was lucky he took after his mother.
“We’ll find your son,” Ms. Campbell said. “We always do.”
“Why?” asked the father.
“I’m sorry?” She glanced over at the two policewomen in the back of the room as they poked through the cubbies, removing baskets of books and shoving aside art supplies. They were going to disrupt her whole system. They were going to-
“Why does he run away here? He never runs from my place.”
“Oh for Christ’s sake, Jonathan!” A flash of a spine, then crumpling. More tears. “Thank you for everything you do for our son. We don’t know where we’d be without you.”
“We’ll find him,” Ms. Campbell said again.
“Ma’am, if you’re ready?” An older officer called from across the room and she nodded and beckoned him over, then turned to see the mother walking back to her son’s desk. The father shuffled after her.
“I just need to ask you few more questions before you go,” said the officer, pulling out a small notepad. “Shouldn’t take long.”
“So, Officer Simons updated me on school policies, class schedules, that sort of stuff. He also mentioned some concerns about Gabriel’s fearfulness this morning. You told him it was unusual for Gabriel to have that level of anxiety?”
“Yes,” she said. “He’s a challenging child, but not usually nervous or fearful. This morning was different.”
She twisted her hands just so. Looked over the officer’s shoulder at nothing, waited a second, then quickly turned her head away.
The officer leaned in. “Are you comfortable talking here? We can go outside if it will help.”
“It’s just the father. He seems so…”
“Please don’t let them know I said anything,” she whispered, then closed her eyes and swayed into the policeman.
“Ma’am, ma’am. It’s okay. I gotcha.” He guided her to her desk chair and sat her down. He knelt beside her, concerned. She wondered briefly whether she should faint, then dismissed the idea.
“Thank you,” she said. “I keep going over and over the day. It’s all so upsetting.”
“Events like this are tough for everyone,” he answered. “I know it’s hard, but we want to act fast here.”
“Of course. Please continue.”
Yes, Gabriel was emotionally disabled. There were significant behavioral issues involved.
Yes, he was a runner. He frequently required restraining holds or the use of the seclusion room to keep him safe.
Yes, Thursdays begin with Art, which the child refused to attend. The assistant was out today, so he stayed with me.
No security cameras in the building. There really should be!
It would be difficult, but not impossible, she supposed, to reach the window while standing on the bathroom sink. It never occurred to her worry about that before now.
Yes, she did give him permission to return to the classroom on his own. He’d earned more freedom lately and…see, this was all her fault!
Suicide attempt? Oh no. No no no. (pause, cover eyes, breathe deeply)
Yes, she buzzed the main office once she realized he was missing.
No, she’d never had trouble with the father. But the boy had drawn pictures of him in a rage this morning. Quite monster-like. Scary, really.
Of course, Officer. Please find him for us.
Ms. Campbell stood and shook the policeman’s hand. She looked back around the room and saw that the two other officers had left. She could hear questions being shouted back and forth from the hallway.
The principal leaned in the classroom door, caught her eye and waved wearily.
She waved back and gathered her gradebook and folders. Tidied up the desk. Slipped on her new London Fog jacket. A final nod to the officer in charge, escorting the boy’s parents from the room. Yet another squeeze of the mother’s hand. Then, at last, out the door, her heels lightly clicking down the hallway.
A teacher sound she remembered from her childhood and found so pleasing now.
She passed two more officers, saw three men in suits examining the hallway to the right, in and around the boy’s bathroom.
She continued down the hall to the front entrance, pushing through the two center doors and out into the cool, wet air. It must have rained that afternoon. The sun had still been shining mid-morning.
Down the steps to the sidewalk, click-click, and turning to the right, heading toward the staff parking lot. She looked up and saw the open window of the second-floor boys’ restroom. A walkie-talkie squawked.
She continued walking around to the farthest corner of the lot, which curved toward the dumpster at the back of the building. There were no windows here. The view was not a pretty one, with stacked trash bags leaning against the tall, chain-link fence, and the walk was far too long for most teachers, hauling supplies and stacks of graded work.
She slowed down as she approached her car, the only one here, and smiled her first real smile of the afternoon. She pulled her keys out of the tote and clicked the “unlock” button.
A muffled cry came from her trunk.
“Sssh,” she whispered, placing her hand on the smooth, dark blue surface. “Sssh.” And she got into her car and turned the key.
Hannah Grieco is a writer and advocate in Arlington, VA. She can be found online at www.hgrieco.com, on Twitter at @writesloud, and at Porcupine Literary as the fiction editor. Image: Monster's Head, Vajda Lajos (1938)