Rumpus Original Fiction: Shelter in Place

By

I tell Kurinda I’d lie flat on the floor under a pile of jackets.

“Like a bearskin rug,” Kurinda says.

She’d go full fetal in the corner.

“I’d hang by my fingers out the second-story bathroom window.”

She’d tuck behind the stack of Chromebooks.

They used to warn teachers a day in advance about the lockdown drills. Last year, we got an email the morning of or a cryptic homeroom announcement of a “faculty endeavor” if we were lucky. Now, they don’t tell anyone. More realistic, I guess.

We’re brown bagging it at my desk. Kurinda went vegan. I’m on my third day of meatloaf and she’s eying the crispy heel. We used to pack large lunches. Picnics almost, back when Kurinda and I taught in the elementary school. But now we’re on our own in the middle. I teach sixth grade and Kurinda has eighth. It’s a small district and I’ve had half my kids before.

We planned to have lunch today, but we didn’t plan to have the lockdown drill together. Usually we’re teaching during them. Usually we must gather our children and, like mice, creep into the corner of the classroom. In elementary school we would play quiet games. We sat on the whisper rug in the corner behind the bookcase and practiced zip-lip. We made it feel normal. With sixth graders, I bribe them. Quiet now means movie later.

Kurinda and I sit at my desk eating. Or I eat. She drinks a smoothie.

“I don’t know if I could cover the children,” Kurinda says.

“That’s fireman stuff,” I say. “Captain America.”

“But every time,” she says, “every time on the news, there’s a teacher who covers the kids.”

“They don’t have families,” I say. “They don’t have kids at home.”

“Neither do I,” she says. “Not yet.”

“You’re trying?”

Kurinda takes a sip. The smoothie is mottled green and grey. There are seeds, which I assume are flax. There are no berries that I can see. She pulls hard on the drink. Her cheeks suck in like an eighties supermodel, like Iman, like Grace Jones. She stops and looks up at me.

“Yeah. Have the baby in early June. Take a few weeks maternity leave and then have the whole summer off.”

“You’d come back in September?”

“I’d need to.”

Having a lockdown drill in fall is different than the other seasons. There is a looming already inherent. Leaves piling against the chain-link fence of the multipurpose court. The macabre of Halloween.

Today, the weather is okay and my kids are outside for gym. They are supposed to be playing capture the flag, but by now they’re sitting knees tight, backs against the outside wall of the handball court; Katie Sherman still optimistically wearing shorts. The outermost wall of the handball court, the side that doesn’t face the school, is possibly the safest place to be during a lockdown. The cement wall is a foot thick, not including the skim coat and mural.

“I don’t ever want kids,” I say.

“That’s because you’re single.”

“No. Look where we are,” I say.

“You mean the drill? Josh, there’s been two hundred and fifty shootings in the past fifty years, over half are gang related. Which isn’t an issue where you live. There are ninety-nine thousand public schools in the country. It’s like saying, I’m not going to have kids because of sharks.”

“Then why don’t they have shark drills?”

“They do. At beaches.”

When I say I’m on my third day of meatloaf, it’s a good thing. I even have enough roasted potatoes and glazed carrots to carry the week. Making a meal on Monday night that lasts through Wednesday is a huge timesaver. I imagine Kurinda making these smoothies every morning, the loud blender crushing the morning silence. The rev of the motor, the crunching of ice. Then having to clean it, making sure the flax seeds didn’t stick to the walls, the spinach wasn’t hiding under the blades.

“What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” I ask.

“Rob’s family this year. Vermont. You?”

“Not the beach.” I smile. “Parents.”

“I’d never hide behind the desk,” Kurinda says.

“First place he’d look.”

“Could be a she,” Kurinda says.

“It’s always a he.”

“Have you had any theys in class yet?”

Mouth full, I shake my head no.

“Ginny has,” Kurinda says. “Remember Amanda Wilson? Goes by Amand now.”

“First day of school, we review pronouns.”

“Really?”

“Me, you, us, he, she, they. Most subtle way to figure it all out.”

“But they’re eleven,” Kurinda says. “How do they know already?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“What do you mean it doesn’t matter?”

“Why should I have a say? The only question is gym and that should just be coed. We have extra bathrooms. They all play six sports outside school anyway.”

“Eleven is confusing enough.”

Katie Sherman’s softball gear is falling out of the closet at the back of the classroom. The week before school began I had plied the closet doors with the cover and first pages of each novel we would read this year. Each time the kids put away their coats, each time they take them out, they are becoming familiar with the text. In seventh grade, they get lockers in the halls and the opportunity is lost.

I am saving Sorcerer’s Stone for last, as a treat for the students. Most of them have read it and it’s a heavy lift. Two hundred and twenty-three pages. But it goes fast and they’re excited. It’s like dessert. Now is not the time for The Outsiders and the portrayal of white-on-white violence.

“Hiding in the closet would work,” I say. “If it was the whole class it would be trickier. There’d be pushing and shoving, but a quick scan and he’d think it was empty.”

“I have a special spot in my room,” she tells me. “but it’s a secret.”

“Where?”

“It would just be for me. Not enough room for anyone else.”

“That’s selfish.”

“No. If I was alone in the room. Not if there were others.”

“So you wouldn’t use it if there were kids in the room?”

“No.”

“Even if it guaranteed you’d survive?”

“No.”

“Even if you were eight months pregnant?”

Kurinda looks out the window toward the silent multi-purpose court. An empty tube of Pringles rolls across the asphalt.

“Even if I was pregnant.”

“You probably wouldn’t even fit in your secret spot with a giant belly.”

“I would.”

Kurinda is having her students read Anne Frank in January. I think about how it will teach them the lack of need for material things—the importance of hiding. But reading Anne Frank also means Kurinda will have to explain Hitler. She must explain genocide, which is something she has never talked about with me. She’ll have to break the world wide open and let them know they are not safe, which has always been the greatest luxury of their parents’ wealth.

 

When I was nine my grandmother handed me a piece of paper and told me to write a list of people I would be willing to hide if I had to. She told me to write down a list of people who I trusted to hide me. After I wrote the names she made me memorize them. Then she turned on the gas stove and lit the paper. It burned quickly as she dropped it into her spotless sink.

When I bought my house, I made sure it had a good basement. Dry. No mold. If I ever had to, I could build a false wall. I could conceal a water pipe. Could install a toilet.

Until she died, my grandmother always had packed suitcases in her closets. One in the front hall and one in the mudroom. “They don’t always come knocking,” she would whisper.

I blame her for being single. Most psychoanalysts would blame that kind of thing on my mother, but every time I met a girl, maybe not the first night or first week but eventually, I ask myself if I’d be willing to hide her. Would she be willing to hide me? Almost always, the answer is no. She is not worth the risk.

“Any plans for the weekend?” I say.

“Pumpkin carving. Rob’s a fanatic about it. I’m done in five minutes, classic triangles.” She smiles. “He’s there with a power drill and scalpel. Last year he downloaded a pattern from some website. Two and a half hours he spent on it.”

“I’m not surprised.”

“He had gourds sticking out for eyes.”

Kurinda stretches her arms high toward the lights. Joints pop and crack.

“In the future, there will be panic rooms in each class,” she says. “With TVs to keep the kids entertained.”

“Not with these budgets.”

“Who are you kidding? They just astroturfed the elementary school fields.”

“Are you really trying to get pregnant?”

“We’ll do IVF if things don’t happen soon.”

“That’s serious money.”

“Worth it. The timing’s got to be right.”

“You’d really come back to work?”

“That’s what daycare is for.”

I am someone who believes women have the same rights as me.

“Will Rob stay home?”

“No.”

Something about this upsets me. Why have a kid if no one’s going to be around for it? I know Kurinda will be a great mother. I have watched her for years with other people’s children, the carefulness in which she handles them, like there is a fragility I could never see. Now she is going to have someone else raise hers?

“It’s not that I want to,” she says, reading my mind. “I have a career. We need two incomes. I’m allowed to have a career.”

“I know,” I say.

“But you’re looking at me like I’m a monster.”

“I don’t mean to,” I say. “You’re going to be amazing.”

“Blame the school district. Their maternity leave sucks. And I just started eighth grade. I can’t disappear.”

She scans the room and I’m not sure if she’s trying to avoid eye contact or it’s something else.

“I’d line the desks up one in front of the other,” she says. “Like a centipede running from the door to the wall. Jam the door. That way, he couldn’t even open it.”

“Maybe organize your class in long rows so you just need to slide one or two desks to do it?”

“I like sitting in a circle. Looking into each other’s eyes.”

“They should just install cockpit doors.”

When my meatloaf is gone, I ball up the tin foil and shoot at the garbage. The foil hits the rim and bounces to the ground.

 

My list, much like my basement, is small. There are my parents. My sister, but not her boyfriend. Those are the easy decisions. The names on the original list. But they are like me. If they have to hide, I have to hide, too.

For years now, I have known I’d hide Kurinda. I know it wouldn’t come down to it, just like I know the shark attack and the active shooter will not happen, but mentally, deep inside, I’ve carved a place for her. If it happens, I imagine it would come down to race. That’s the American way. I would go to her house and she and Rob would tuck away in the back of my truck. I’d pull right into my garage, close the door, and escort them and now, their baby, inside. They would tuck away in the basement, behind the thick cement wall which I haven’t built. There would be food, canned, I guess. I’d need to buy diapers in advance. I’d have to install ventilation and consider soundproofing. There could be no windows. No way for light or voices to escape.

Kurinda and Rob didn’t know I had this plan. No one knew, which was the point.

 

I think about my kids, bored, backs against the handball wall. The stillness forced on their restless bodies. If it was up to me, I would have them in gym and recess for an hour each. They need to run. They need fresh air. We keep them at desks forty-two minutes at a crack with three minutes to get to their next desk. The rotation, the shuffle. If we let them run. If we gave them hockey sticks and tennis balls. If we had them run until their legs were clay, we’d get somewhere. They’d sit still during spelling review. They’d know where to pick up their reading. They’d be able to tell me about protagonists and antagonists.

“Sometimes I wish I kept a hammer and nails in my drawer,” I say. “Just nail it shut.”

“The kids would find the hammer,” she says. “Lawsuit waiting to happen.”

When she finishes her smoothie, the straw gathering the last of the flax seeds, her eyes are back at the window.

“You know,” she says, “the teachers who throw themselves in front of the kids? They’re parents. They have to be. It only makes sense that way. That’s the agreement they’ve made with, I don’t know, with someone higher. When you’re in that kind of situation, you make deals with God.”

Kurinda looks at me, eyes a little glassy, and nods her head trying to get me to understand what she is saying. “I’ll take care of them,” she says, “if you take care of mine.”

I’d like to think I wouldn’t hide in the drop-down ceiling or the air conditioning intake vent. I’d like to think I would throw my shoulder against the door. That I would stand with a handful of chalk dust, ready to toss in his eyes. That I would grab Katie Sherman’s softball bat and smash it across his face. I would beat him until the dismissal bell rang. Until the children, packed in the closet, asked if it was safe to come out.

***

Rumpus original art by Sumayya Ansari.


Christian McLean’s fiction has been published in The Southampton Review, The Scores, and Our Story. He co-directs the Southampton Writers Conference and teaches in the Creative Writing & Literature Program at Stony Brook University. More from this author →