They’re late. They’ve been late for twenty-five minutes, crawling south on I-5. Henry would’ve called ahead to say they were coming, but he doesn’t have Dina’s number—they’ve only ever corresponded online. He might’ve sent an email from his iPhone, but they’re moving too fast to monopolize the use of his thumbs. So instead they’re just late, and not by a little. Gripping the steering wheel, he tries to ignore the dashboard clock.
As they pull up to Dina’s address (familiar from her description of the scorched grass), he spies a parking space. Turning off the engine, he stares across the street. In the driveway is an SUV. He’s under strict instructions not to park behind it, lest he block in the landlord. Henry’s understanding of the situation, as gleaned tangentially, is that Dina rents an artist’s studio behind the main property, as well as a bedroom on the second floor—the square footage of the former roughly equal to that of the latter, which must demand an economy of space.
For a moment, he and Peyton sit and listen to the cooling of the engine—waiting for what, Henry couldn’t say. The sight of Dina peddling past, pant leg cinched and head shaved bare? Or for the clock to read 10:00, a nice round number? They were supposed to meet before work, a concession on Dina’s part. Henry had the foresight to visit the bank yesterday, rather than add to his hectic morning. It had required numerous trips to the ATM to withdraw the eight hundred dollars, the price of his commission well exceeding the daily maximum.
“What d’you think, kiddo?” he says, looking into the rearview mirror. “Better late than never?”
Staring at his reflection, Peyton betrays neither sympathy nor frustration, absent-mindedly tugging at her double-knotted laces. At seventeen months, she’s not speaking, though her comprehension level is ostensibly fluent. Whole paragraphs fill her silences. If he doesn’t always catch her meaning, Henry manages to convince himself otherwise.
“I agree,” he nods. “But the fact is, you’re a drag on my punctuality. Not that I’m pointing fingers. Only, if I did, it’d be your fault.”
With a spasm of effort, he launches himself from the car. The smell of cut grass is pervasive. Somewhere in the distance, he can hear the drone of a lawn mower, wielded by a neighbor who still waters his lawn. Freeing Peyton from her restraints, they cross 18th and sidle past the SUV. When Henry peeks inside, he sees discarded candy wrappers plugging the dashboard console and a doggie bed monopolizing the back seat. He wonders if the property’s patrolled by a canine, but there’s no signage to that effect. Anyhow, it’s a small doggie bed. It probably belongs to a terrier, not some fanged behemoth.
Dina said she’d be out back. The artist’s studio is actually a detached garage, painted a blinding shade of white. Approaching with Peyton in his arms, the only thing he can hear is the lawn mower from down the block, no sounds of congress coming from within. With his forehead pressed to the glass, he surveys the room through the retractable door. The studio is flooded with natural light, sawdust and dander floating on the air. He can see an iPod dock and various tools. Dina’s not there; however, in her absence, he spots his portrait standing against the wall. It’s a close-up of the family, rendered from a photo that he provided: Henry and Laurie gazing lovingly at Peyton, while she smiles and faces the camera. The last time he saw it, seated at a brewpub with Dina, he’d nearly wept at the unveiling.
The exchange had been set for April, just in time for Mother’s Day. The image itself was a year old, all of them expertly coiffed and arrayed—a previous Mother’s Day gift from Henry. The synchronicity pleased him: posing one year and hanging the portrait the next. He would’ve gladly paid for it then; only, not long after Dina’s reveal (dabbing at his eyes with a paper napkin), he’d first noticed the discrepancy. Upon inspection, it had appeared that Peyton’s eyes were crossed. Not much—just a little. Still, considering the amount of money he was spending, a little had seemed egregious.
Shielding his eyes with the flat of his hand, Henry tries to determine whether the mistake has been fixed; meanwhile, Peyton squirms in his embrace. Squatting, he sets her down in her sun dress and ballet flats, and tests the handle on the retractable door: locked.
“Damn it,” he grunts. Then, “Sorry, sweetheart. Daddy’s a bit frustrated.”
It’s no big deal, he encourages himself, as they begin to walk away. He can come back next week. A trip into Portland is negligible, whether Laurie’s traveling for business or not. A cyclist passes on the street and Henry stops, in the unlikely event that it’s Dina. Of course, it isn’t—the bike is long gone before he can raise a hand in greeting. Feeling dumb, he snatches Peyton up. What the fuck is he doing? Why are they leaving? They’re here already, with the portrait languishing in plain sight.
Lugging Peyton, he goes back to try the side door. Much to his surprise, the knob turns. In the moments to follow, Henry can’t decide what’s better—whether he’s at greater risk of being scolded while standing inside or outside the breached garage. Ultimately, he decides to cross the threshold. Lowering Peyton to her feet, he crosses the studio to pick up the portrait. The alterations, barely noticeable, have indeed been made. Peyton’s likeness stares out at him, the expression on her face one of rapt wonder. In the original picture, her left eye had been aslant, drifting toward the right—perhaps the result of having a lens stuck in her face. As Henry had assured Dina, he could respect her fealty to the subject matter; but still, what right-minded parent would ask for a cross-eyed keepsake?
“Look, honey,” he says, angling the painting toward Peyton. “Who’s that? It’s you! You, mommy and daddy!”
What happens next occurs spontaneously. Holding the portrait in his hands, he realizes he can’t leave it here—to do so would be absurd. Instead, he leans it against his shin and fishes in his rear pocket. Forty twenty-dollar bills constitute a fat wad, causing his wallet to bloat considerably. Henry lays the money next to the iPod dock, where he’s confident Dina will see it. Then, recalling the unlocked door, he makes a better effort at concealment—grabbing a paint brush from a nearby caddy and laying it on top of the cash. But, of course, he can lock the door behind him. Returning the brush to its original place, he ignores Peyton’s glare. When he picks up the portrait up again, her sigh is emphatic.
Leading her by the hand, they retreat up the driveway. To a casual observer, this would constitute an act of theft; and though he could easily explain himself, Henry would rather not have to. With the painting under one arm, he slinks past the landlord’s car—thinking about what he might say, in the event that they cross paths. As they pass the kitchen window, a vicious yapping causes Henry to start. It’s the landlord’s terrier—confined to the house, but still causing a ruckus. Also alarmed by the sound, and the ensuing trauma to her arm, Peyton begins to cry. Henry scoops her up in his free arm and trots the rest of the way.
He’s debating whether the trunk will be large enough to accommodate the picture frame when his iPhone starts ringing. Peyton’s still weeping, the dog is barking, and now a fake, old-timey tone is emanating from his pocket. It’s one of those surreal moments in life, like hearing your name spoken out of context. Henry wedges the portrait into the footwell and extracts his phone. It’s Laurie. He wonders how she could’ve possibly known—whether mother’s intuition spurred her to call, or if he’s generally so unreliable. But then he squints at the display, and remembers he told her to check in sometime after 10:00.
With the push of a button, he sends her to voicemail. Now the only sound to assail them is that of the dog barking; the distant lawn mower has been silenced. Henry looks at Peyton and offers a smile. Hunkered down this close to each other, it’s possible to sync their breathing—to block out everything else and create an oasis of calm. Instead, he makes a careful inspection of her eyes, hazel like her mother’s—ensuring himself for the hundredth time that they’re invariably, undeniably straight.
• • •
The trip home is faster, devoid of any northbound traffic. Henry manages to keep Peyton awake by barraging her with constant questions. “What should we eat when we get home? How about grilled cheese for you and puttanesca for me? How does that sound, Peyton? Peyton? Don’t fall asleep!”
He continues to harass her even after they’ve pulled into the parking lot. “Do you think mommy will like the portrait?” he says. “I think so. We should hang it after your nap. Will you help me remember to get it from the car? We should call Dina. I should email her.”
Trudging back inside, he heads straight to the kitchen. He needs to fill Peyton’s stomach, though she’s far too manic to sit at the table. Rather, Henry spoons her bites of applesauce and Grape Nuts while she gallops around the living room. Outside the patio window, students from the local high school are enjoying their recess. He turns on the air conditioner to drown out their chatter—feeding Peyton her last few bites while cool air blows up his back.
“Come on,” he says, dropping the dishes in the sink. “Time to get you into bed.”
In her room, he changes her diaper and zips her into a sleep sack—a cotton swaddle with armholes, essentially. When they originally moved into this apartment, he and Laurie bequeathed the master suite and adjoining bathroom to Peyton, along with her crib, changing table, nursing chair, Diaper Genie, rows of bookshelves, cadre of stuffed animals, and various other amenities they’ve continued to acquire. Additionally, they’ve installed a blackout curtain over the window. Now, closing the door behind them, he turns on the nightlight and the iPad—the glow of the former a spearmint puddle on the floor, the latter yet another novelty. He managed to survive an analogue childhood; however, the white noise app has improved Peyton’s sleep.
For the next thirty seconds or so she remains in good spirits, even when the illusion of playtime has faded. But as they sit down for a story, the final ritual before going to sleep, Peyton goes wild. Herein, all her exhaustion is released. With eyes that bulge, she wails and pounds on his chest. When Henry reaches the final page of Goodnight Moon, he attempts to place her on her back, but she immediately sits up. Once more he forces her down, and once more she successfully rights herself.
“It’s naptime, honey. Time to go to sleep.”
Turning off the light, he abandons her in this agitated state, possessed of the mortification only a toddler can know. If he had to wager, he’d guess that she’ll fall asleep, but not until she’s yelled herself hoarse. At this point, the monitor isn’t necessary; her voice is audible through layers of plaster and concrete, even competing with the riffraff outside.
A rumbling in his stomach brings puttanesca to mind, but first he must return Laurie’s call. Laying down on the sofa and adjusting the pillows under his feet, Henry pulls up her number from his Recent Calls log. She answers on the second ring:
“Hi, this is Laurie?”
“Hey,” he says. “Are you free?”
“Yes, of course! Just a moment while I—excuse me, do you mind?—okay, thanks.”
As she makes the necessary apologies, he stretches his arms above his head. From the other room, Peyton is still hollering. He should make note of the time, Henry thinks, and measure her progress (or lack, thereof).
“Hey,” Laurie says a moment later. “Sorry—I had to get out of a meeting.”
“I figured. Am I interrupting anything important?”
“No, no—for all I care, they can stare at each other until they all go blind. How about you? How was your morning? I tried calling—”
“Yeah, sorry—we were on a secret mission. And now we’re attempting a put-down.”
“With the put-down? Listen for yourself,” he says, holding up his phone. When he returns it to his ear, Laurie is laughing.
“Charming. How long will you let her go?”
“Another ten to fifteen minutes before I try to calm her down. I hope she gets some kind of nap.”
“She might have a poop,” Laurie suggests.
“Maybe. But I just changed her.”
From outside, he can hear the summons of a distant gym whistle, signaling the end of recess. Peering through his splayed feet, which form a V on the pile of pillows, he watches as students march past his window.
“How was your mission?”
“Successful,” he grins. “Both highly productive and highly sneaky. When will you be through?”
“No later than five, I think. I might even leave tonight, if there’s nothing planned for tomorrow.”
“You could do that?” Henry says, abruptly sitting. Suddenly, the smell of raw onions is pungent on the air. His tiny bowls of ingredients, prepped from earlier this morning, remain uncovered on the kitchen counter.
“I figure, if I can get back to the hotel and checked-out by six, I could be home by eight—and that’s including traffic. But I should probably get back, if I ever want this meeting to end.”
“Yeah, yeah—go!” he encourages her. “Flee, escape! You’ll let me know if anything changes?”
“I will. Good luck with her.”
“Thanks. Maybe I should give her a magazine?
“Maybe. Or maybe just your iPhone?”
“Good idea. Let me know if she posts anything inappropriate.”
“Love you, sweets.”
“Love you, too.”
Peyton is still yammering away, alternating fits of hysteria with intermittent babble. Henry’s more concerned by her jocularity. For some reason, weeping often precedes sleep, whereas happy banter can go on forever. She’s been talking for approximately ten minutes; he really should’ve checked the clock when the thought first occurred to him. It’s possible, like Laurie said, that she’s got a poop. If so, no surfeit of patience will do—she’ll be awake for as long as her diaper is soiled. Conversely, if she doesn’t have a poop and he goes back in, she’ll know her crying has warranted attention.
Turning on the monitor, he holds it up to his ear. The first time everyone slept through the night, it had been the result of a faulty predecessor: the thing’s batteries had crapped out. Peyton had been fine, of course, and they’d upgraded to a superior brand, but an important lesson had been learned: she’d survived the night without their vigilance. Somewhere in the midst of teething and sleep training, Henry had stopped worrying about SIDS. He’d stopped loitering by her crib, to witness the rise and fall of her chest. Peyton had been firmly established in the world—a wind-up clock that would keep on ticking, despite anything he did or didn’t do.
As soon as he enters her room, he’s greeted by the smell: definitely a poop. She’s standing in her sleep sack, holding onto the railing of her crib. When she sees him, she produces a relieved sob, the trail of tears still wet on her cheeks. Meanwhile, Henry tries to avoid eye contact. He doesn’t know where this thought originated, but fraternizing seems to send the wrong message. Instead, he picks her up and carries her to the changing table. Her body radiates heat, like an overtaxed battery. As Peyton passively observes him, he changes her diaper (very full, very stinky) and affixes a new one. Upon returning her to her crib, he lays her down and provides her with a blankie. She sighs, but doesn’t protest. As he leaves, he keeps expecting a sudden backlash … but there’s nothing. Henry closes the door to silence.
Walking past the bathroom and into the living room, he’s startled by a teenage boy standing out on the patio—eyes wide with apprehension, palms and fingertips adhering to the glass. There’s a part of Henry that withers, loathe to acknowledge a stranger. It’s the same part of him that ignores panhandlers on the I-5 ramp. He recognizes its impulse to rationalize, to make moral excuses for bad behavior: I don’t want to give money to this person, nor should I, because there are better, less direct means of combating homelessness/unemployment/dementia, which I can research after the light turns green. But this, he tells himself, is different—this is a kid. He forces himself to smile. A wave would be tone deaf, given the boy’s distressed state.
“Yes?” Henry says, after unlocking the door.
“There’s been a shooting,” the boy stammers.
“A shooting?” he repeats, the smile frozen on his face. No matter how thoroughly the word has entered the lexicon, or how frequently it’s been used by the national media, shooting is still a noun he has trouble contextualizing.
“At school. Can I come in?”
The boy glances over his shoulder, so Henry looks that way, too. There’s nothing unusual to see, nothing to distinguish this morning from any other day. The school and it’s outlying property are quiet, seemingly vacated. There aren’t any other students in evidence.
“I don’t understand. Is—”
“A shooting,” the boy emphasizes. Suddenly, the full gravity of the situation weighs upon him. Henry grabs the boy by the shoulders and pulls him inside. Columbine, he thinks. Virginia Tech. If there’s been a shooting, then there must be a shooter, if not multiple shooters. If there’s a shooter, then it’s entirely possible that someone’s been shot. Slamming the door and locking it, he’s appalled by their continued exposure. Behind the picture windows and the patio door, his living room feels like a terrarium.
“Are you all right?” Henry asks, borrowing the script from a rear-end collision. He’s fleetingly proud of himself and his newfound compassion. “Are you hurt?”
The boy is standing in the middle of the kitchen, wrinkling his nose. His wardrobe is shapeless, monochrome. In fact, the only hint of personality comes from his plum-colored backpack, adorned with buttons and decals: Question Authority; skull and crossbones; Heath Ledger’s Joker. How convenient, Henry thinks, to have a symbol of individuality that one can shed at a moment’s notice—slung over a shoulder when it suits him, and discarded just as easily.
“What’s that smell?” the boy says. From the expression on his face, any initial trepidation seems to have passed.
“Puttanesca—it’s a sauce.”
“It smells gross.”
“It’s just raw ingredients. Are you hurt?” he says again, growing impatient. Who taught this child to criticize a person’s home, so soon after being ushered inside? Henry would’ve been scolded for putting his elbows on the table, let alone making unflattering remarks. For his part, the boy responds to Henry’s tone of voice, rather than the content of his question, shrugging and scowling.
“I don’t know,” he mumbles. “No? I guess?”
For some reason, this only causes him to burrow deeper into himself, clutching at the straps of his knapsack and lowering his chin to his chest. Henry feels a tremendous urge to shake him, to lay hands on the boy and correct his posture. It’s not for lack of sympathy, either. In his truculence and forbearance, Henry sees himself as an adolescent: disenchanted by the adult world, and disinclined to suffer its slights.
“Look,” he says, in what he hopes to be his most reasonable voice. “My name is Henry Abbott—you’re safe here. My daughter’s sleeping in the other room. She’s just a baby, not a big boy like you. Why don’t you take a minute and tell me what happened?”
The mention of Peyton is meant to be reassuring; as the father of an infant, he should be above suspicion. Of course, that’s entirely untrue, given the world in which they live—and the kid responds to his parlance, anyway, rolling his eyes at the term “big boy.” Henry can’t help it. Certain language intrudes upon your vocabulary with the arrival of a child, like “big boy,” “silly,” and “poop.”
“What’s your name?” he tries again—thinking this question, at least, may be construed as harmless.
“Nice to meet you, Ike. Should we call your parents?”
“I already texted my mom,” he says, brandishing a smartphone he must’ve been palming. Numerous rejoinders spring to Henry’s mind: that a text message isn’t the same as a phone call; that his mother will learn more from the sound of his voice than any verbiage he typed.
“Does she know that you’re safe? Tell her you’re here. I’ll give you my address—I’ll even talk to her, if you like.”
“I can text it,” Ike says, rapidly stabbing at his phone. Clearly, this is his preferred method of communication. Who knows what it says about his relationship with his mother, or the nature of technology; Henry’s rejoinders are arguably moot. But now he’s committed himself to sharing the information:
“My name is Henry Abbott,” he says again, “and I live at 315 Southeast 139th Avenue, apartment seventy-six. Do you want to give her my number?”
“What for?” Ike mutters, eyes downcast.
“Right—what for.” Suddenly, it occurs to him that he should call Laurie. Or should he? Does he really want to concern her? What does he actually know about the situation? This person (this boy) tells him there’s been a shooting, but Henry doesn’t know whether a suspect’s in custody, or whether the police have been informed. He doesn’t know if the danger has passed, or if Laurie will return to an ongoing situation. What does that even mean, ongoing situation? It would be irresponsible of him to recite platitudes. Anyway, she’d want to know that Peyton is safe.
“Ike,” he says, trying to get the boy’s attention. When this fails, Henry waves a hand in his face. “Ike. I need to get a better sense of things. I need to know whether we’re safe here, or if we need to go. What can you tell me about the shooting? Did they catch someone?”
Although he’s stopped typing, Ike’s face remains inscrutable. An objectively unattractive child, his nose and ears are comically large, like the basis of a cheap disguise, and his forehead is domed. Henry recognizes his lay efforts at grooming: hair swept back in a pompadour, no doubt styled with mousse. Or is mousse also a thing of the past?
“I’ve got this neighbor,” Henry says, the thought of Mac only now occurring to him. “He’s a cop—he’ll know what to do.”
“A cop?” Ike echoes.
“A retiree. But he sits around all day, listening to his police scanner. If there’s any information, he’s sure to have it.”
This raises the obvious question: can Henry leave Peyton in Ike’s care, or is he compelled to wake her? He’s got no affinity toward the boy. His backpack could be filled with drug paraphernalia, for all Henry knows. At the same time, the thought of rousing a sleeping baby, even under threat of duress, is enough to make him grind his teeth.
Before he can arrive at a decision, Ike blurts out, “Tyler Jergens.”
“What? Who’s that?”
“He’s a guy at my school. He—” With evident discomfort, he gulps down a mouthful of air. “He brought a gun to the cafeteria. From home, I guess? Like, maybe it belongs to his dad? He waited until first lunch period, then he shot it in the air.”
“Is that all?” Henry asks. “Just the one time?”
Biting his lip, Ike shakes his head no.
“Did you see anyone get shot?”
“How about police? Did you see any?”
Even as he asks this, Henry assumes there’s a safety protocol. Given the current political environment, every school must be tensed for an armed standoff. One shot would be enough to alert a teacher, or a cafeteria monitor. Surely multiple shots would trigger the apparatus. Even as they speak, classrooms are being locked from the inside, while students are told to hide in coat closets. Parents are receiving automated text messages. Web sites are being updated. There’s a police precinct a couple blocks away; doubtless, they got word of the situation before Henry did.
Ike is shaking his head again. It takes a moment for Henry to recall his initial question.
“No police—okay. That doesn’t mean they aren’t there. What happened to this Tyler person?”
“I think he escaped, maybe?”
Henry nods his head, trying to promote confidence. Clearly, Ike doesn’t have a clue. And why should he? There was gunfire and he fled; it’s admirable that he kept his head down and thought to find safety. Who knows how many of his peers remain barricaded inside? It’s not television—he wasn’t watching from a distance. Regardless of whether or not he absorbed every detail, that wasn’t his job. He ran away. It’s the most that any parent could ask for.
Henry picks up his iPhone and pokes at Laurie’s number. He doesn’t expect her to answer. In fact, he’s already crafted a message in his head: somber but vague, with instructions to call him back immediately. But she surprises him by exclaiming after the second ring, “Didn’t we just say goodbye?”
“Laurie, listen—everything’s okay, but something’s happened. There’s been a shooting at the school.”
He realizes, as he speaks the words, that he doesn’t know the school’s name. It must have a name; it has to have a name. For almost a year now, they’ve driven past it on a regular basis. He looks at it nearly every day, like a two-dimensional set piece. But when he needs to distinguish it from any other building in his ZIP Code, the best he can muster is “the school.”
Luckily, Laurie doesn’t seem concerned by this nattering detail. “Oh, god,” she gasps. “Are you all right? Is everything okay?”
“Still asleep. But I don’t know, I’m not sure—”
“What can you see out the window?” Laurie quizzes him. Grateful for something tactile to relate, Henry peers out the kitchen window.
“Nothing,” he reports. “Like, nothing—no people, no sirens, nothing.”
“No helicopters either,” he says, dipping his head for a better angle at the sky.
“How do you know there’s been a shooting if nothing’s happening? Did Mac tell you? Is he there?”
Henry turns to face Ike, who, of course, has been intently listening. A look of consternation is etched upon his face, like he’s trying to memorize whole chunks of dialogue. Henry finds it endearing; at the same time, it makes him feel self-conscious. Peyton is too young to parrot his words, but he’s decidedly casual with his language around her, cursing and muttering in equal measure. Now he finds himself enunciating.
“We’ve got a guest—a young man named Ike. A student. He got off the property and knocked on our door.”
“And you let him in?”
Pivoting toward the window, Henry lowers his voice. “You think I shouldn’t have? I didn’t really have a choice.”
“Is he still there?”
“Yes,” he quips, employing a more chipper tone. “We’re all of us here—just us chickens.”
“Oh, Henry,” Laurie groans. “What’re you going to do?”
Pulling out a chair, he slouches over. “I don’t know,” he admits. “I figure we’ve got two options—either we can stay or we can go. If we go, who knows what we’ll run into. The shooter could still be out there. He could be in the parking lot, for all I know! And who can say when they’ll let us back in? What if there’s a hostage situation? What if it turns into a crime scene?”
“It, where? Why would our apartment turn into a crime scene?”
“Not our apartment,” he frowns. “But 139th? What if they set up a perimeter? Or a roadblock? If we go outside, we have to pack like we’re not coming back. Jesus,” he mutters, “I sound like Dr. Seuss.”
“Plus,” Laurie adds, “you need to bring the boy with you.”
Henry glances at Ike, who’s returned his attention to his smartphone. At least, it looks that way—you can never tell with kids. Their eyes can be aimed one direction, while their ears catch everything.
“Why would I do that?” Henry says, deliberately trying to obfuscate his meaning.
“You can’t just leave him! Have you already called his parents?”
“We, uh—overtures have been made. Communiqués have been sent.”
“I don’t understand. You mean text messages?”
“Yes. And I really can’t say whether they’ve been received or not.”
Laurie utters a frustrated noise, either because she’s bugged by the idea of communicating via text or because she’s displeased by Ike’s presence. But how could he ignore the boy’s plight, when he was literally seeking asylum? Of course, Henry didn’t know that when he opened the door, but shouldn’t you provide shelter on the basis of that assumption?
“So,” Laurie says. “The second option.”
“You think it’s safe?”
Henry shrugs, despite the fact that she can’t see him. “I don’t know. Maybe? We won’t open the door to anyone—or anyone else—and we can see what’s happening through the patio window. Peyton’s room is probably most secure, if we need somewhere to hide. Her window’s small, and we can block the door with her changing table.”
“You said she’s still sleeping?”
“As far as I can tell. Hopefully, this whole thing will blow over before she wakes up.”
“Please, Henry,” Laurie says, and he can hear the effort required to control her emotions. “Please keep her safe.”
“Of course I will. She’ll be fine—everything will be fine. Nothing bad will happen to us. I just need more information.”
“Okay,” she steels herself. There’s a determined quality to her voice, like a door being shut. “In the meantime, I’m leaving. Maybe I’ll get lucky with traffic. Either way, I can’t sit around here and wait for five o’clock.”
Henry’s on the verge of asking if that’s prudent, but then he thinks better of it. Not every client will sympathize with a domestic crisis—male or female, parent or no. At the same time, he doubts he can dissuade her. Better to keep his mouth shut and their purposes aligned.
“You’ll let me know what kind of progress you make?” he says.
“Of course. You, too, Henry—you need to text me, okay? You have to. Every fifteen minutes.”
“I can’t text you every fifteen minutes,” he laughs. “I don’t check my email every fifteen minutes!”
“Every half hour, then. I need to know what’s happening. I need to know you’re safe. Please, Henry, I’m starting to feel—I just feel a little—”
Trying to soothe her, he intones, “Deep breaths, okay? Picture the apartment. We’re here. We’re fine. Everything bad is outside this space. Everything good is inside it. There’s no one coming to get us and we’re not leaving. If you start feeling crazy, just picture the apartment and block everything else out.”
“Okay,” she says, sounding a little more steady.
“Are you able to drive?”
“I’m fine—I’ll be fine. I’ll text you when I’m on the road. Henry?”
“I love you, Henry.”
His throat constricts and his vision blurs, almost like he’s having an allergic reaction. He’s moved to make promises: that he’ll protect Peyton; that he’d sooner die than allow anything to happen to her. But Laurie knows this—hasn’t he already said as much? What good are promises the second and third time around?
“I love you, too,” he rasps, staring into his lap. “Drive safe.”
“I will. I’ll text.”
Henry’s struck by the inherent contradiction—the paradox of safely driving while also monitoring one’s texts. But she’s gone before he can make a joke, the phone in his hand a sleek artifact, cold and inert.
Read Jamie’s interview about Poor Henry, his novel in progress