by KEN DERRY
To hear author Ken Derry reading this piece, check out the latest episode (Episode 3: Real/Fantastical—Fantastical/Real) of our podcast, CQ Speaks.
When Ms. Martin first heard the discharge and shattered glass, she did not pause to consider if this were a drill. Training overcame doubt. She had a precise velocity in the way she lowered the eraser and ran to the door, quick and determined, not wild or out of step in a way that might alarm the children. In this moment, Ms. Martin was a fairy dancer, just a breath ago singing with them the alphabet song, pointing to the letters with the tip of the eraser, now sweeping across the floor with fingers of air that reached behind her and feathered their angel hair. As she flew, she said in a firm adult voice, “Everyone, this is not practice. Get into your turtle shells. Do as we rehearsed.”
Now she was at the door. She thumbed the lock.
Some of the children looked at her in frozen time, as if their staring could stop the world from spinning. They looked to her for more direction—another command from Ms. Martin or the way she could point with such authority when she instructed someone to take their seat—but that confirmation did not come from Ms. Martin. It happened in another cluster of pops.
Ms. Martin swung down the aisles and patted the children on their backs. “Move,” she said. “Now.”
There were, of course, a few children who did as they were told, and they quickly scooted back their seats, careful not to let the chair legs drag across the floor in that sliding trombone way that Ms. Martin said was the cause of her thinning nerves and graying hairs. She was only twenty-eight. These precious few children tapped their somnambulant neighbors and invited them into the storybook narrative that had been constructed for scenarios such as these.
“Go to your turtle shells,” they whispered loudly. “We are safe in our turtle shells.”
“What’s happening?” asked Cynthia, still seated at her desk, a long pencil in her hand. Her white shoes could not touch the ground. She had yellow hair that was tied in pink ribbons, and she wore a pink spring dress that her grandmother had made.
Benjamin came to her. He wore a long sleeve polo shirt tucked into blue jeans with an elastic waist. The polo had blue and orange stripes going across his chestbecause those were the colors of his father’s favorite football team. Benjamin helped pull her chair back from the desk. He took her hand and said, “It’s the turtle game.Remember? We have to go to our shells. Quick, or Ms. Martin will tell your parents.”
“Okay,” she said.
“Come on, kids,” Ms. Martin said. “You have to move quicker.”
She was aware of her voice and was trying with all her powers of restraint not to let her fears inflect her tone.
She remained at the door and looked down the hall through the narrow pane of glass. There was nothing to see. She heard more popping and breaking, but it did not sound as though anything were moving closer. She stood there looking, her heart beating as though it were outside of her chest, exposed and vulnerable. She chewed her bottom lip, took short breaths until she periodically remembered to fill her lungs and tried to slow the thoughts in her head.
Should I call someone? Should I call the front office? No. What could they tell me? I know the drill.
The hallway was dark, lit only by the shocks of white emergency lights. She reached back against the wall for the bank of switches and darkened her classroom. That was the signal for the kids to freeze, and immediately, the kids were silent and motionless and looking at her for their next direction.
“Keep going,” she shooed them, “keep going. Move as fast as you can, but do not say a word. Quiet racer turtles. Okay?”
“Yes, Ms. Martin,” they sang to her in their most muted voices.
Across the room, she saw Jimmy, a brown-haired boy who wanted to be an astronaut and loved to draw pictures of his father’s motorcycle and mother’s flowers. He was under his desk, peeking out at her through the bushy festoon of his bangs.
She ran to him, pulling him out and forklifting him up into her chest. He began to cry.
“Shh,” she said. “Be my little space man, okay? You can do this. Cry softly. It’s okay to be scared, but you must be quiet. Please, Jimmy.”
“Okay,” he said.
She opened the closet door and stood him with the other children already there. They looked at her for guidance.
“Shh,” she said.
She had a floorplan mapped out in her head where she wanted the kids to go. No comedians in the bathroom. Tile amplified laughter, and the temptation to flush the toilet might be too great. Don’t group criers together. Four could fit in her coat closet. Another ten in the supply closets. In the tall cubbies, teams of two.
The floor was clear. The room, quiet.
“Do as the turtles do,” she whispered, “and stay silent in your shells.”
She backed against the wall in the nook next to the door, into the classroom umbra and glanced out the pane of glass. She slid down to her ankles, clutched her knees, and watched the mobiles of stars and planets and birds dance darkly, swaying from their strings tied to the ceiling hooks.
Ken Derry is the former executive editor of publications for the New York Yankees. He lives in New Jersey with his family.