The entire classroom argued, but Mr. Holland won out, insisting we open our books and at least pretend to concentrate on the lesson. I put my phone away and opened my textbook to page two hundred forty-nine as instructed.
Pretend was exactly what we had to do, and most of the kids in that room failed miserably. Carina Tesh began to sniffle, and by the time the bell rang, her whimpering had prompted tears from several girls in the classroom.
As Chloe and I ascended the stairs to the main level, we saw through the large glass doors and windows of the school entrance the many cars parked at the curb, and adults and kids were running in or out of the school.
“Where’s your mom today?” I asked.
Chloe pressed her lips together. “She went down to Greenville. She had to pick up some things. She’ll be back by the time school is out though.”
“Maybe she’ll come back early.”
Chloe’s eyes fell to the floor. We both knew Greenville was far enough away that her mom would be lucky to make it back by the last bell.
After lunch, the classrooms were half empty.
In history class, Mrs. Stuckey had her Smart Board hooked up as well. A graphic that read Breaking News rolled on and then off the screen, and the news anchor appeared with a deep line between his brows.
“I’m Brian Jenkins, and welcome back to KFOR. We’ve just received word that the first cases of an unknown virus have hit US soil. Atlanta and New York City airports are both reporting chaos as the infected are attacking travelers in the terminals.”
“No. Dear Lord, no,” Mrs. Stuckey said before covering her mouth.
Without caring about the consequences, everyone pulled out their phones and began tapping text messages. Some even made phone calls, screeching at their parents about the news.
I texted my dad.
Please tell me you’re on your way.
Yes. Picking up your sister from the grade school now. Will be there soon. Sit tight.
I put my phone away. Chloe bit her lip, fingering her phone.
“If my dad gets here before you get a hold of her, you can come with us.”
She shook her head. “I can’t go to Anderson. My mom would freak out.”
“Maybe we could drop you off at your house then?”
Chloe frowned at her phone. “She’ll be here.”
By the next hour, Chloe and I were two of only six kids in Spanish class. A seventh-grader walked in with several pieces of paper and handed them to Mrs. Hall. With heavy eyes, she looked across her mostly empty classroom.
“Cole, Tanner, Amelia, Addison, and Jenna, your parents are here to pick you up.”
Everyone but me scrambled to gather their things, and they rushed out the door.
Chloe waved good-bye to me. “I’ll text you later.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to come with us?” I asked.
She shook her head, and a contrived smile stretched across her face. “I’ll wait for my mom. Get going. I bet Halle is freaking out in the car.”
“Okay. Text me as soon as she picks you up.”
“Later, tater,” she said, trying to keep the tremble from her voice.
I didn’t stop by my locker. Chloe was right. If Dad had to come into the school to check me out, Halle would be in the car alone and likely working herself up into a frenzy.
Dad stood out in his dress blues, holding his hat under his arm. It was the first time he’d come to pick me up while wearing his formal clothes, and for a moment, it made me forget why he was here early.
“Wow,” I said.
He looked like a soldier instead of a firefighter.
“Let’s go,” Dad responded. He guided me out the door and down the steps with a hand on my shoulder.
His white Chevy Tahoe was still running with the windows rolled up when we reached his place in line. Halle wasn’t panicked at all when I opened the front passenger door. She was sitting behind me in the middle row in one of the two captain’s chairs with her seat belt fastened and her hands folded tightly in her lap. The back bench seat had a case of bottled waters and several white plastic sacks full of cans.
After climbing into my seat, I put my textbook and binder on the floorboard. “Hey, Halle,” I said, trying to sound cheerful. I turned around to smile at her only briefly before buckling in.
Dad jumped into his seat and pulled the gear into drive. Pulling away from the curb, he asked, “You buckled in, Pop Can?”
He wasn’t talking to me. One of the other firefighters had once said that Halle was no bigger than a pop can, and it had stuck. Born five weeks early, she was pretty small for her age. She had worn toddler-sized clothes until she was in kindergarten. Dad was half an inch shorter than Mom, so we always teased Halle for being petite like him. Dad didn’t find that funny, so he stayed with Pop Can.
Halle tugged on her seat belt and then wiped her nose with the back of her hand.
Dad rounded a corner quickly, and my shoulder bounced off the door.
“Sorry. I’m trying to get out of town. How was your day?” Dad asked with a tinge of nervousness in his voice.
I raised an eyebrow at him. “What’s wrong with Halle? Why is she being so quiet?”
“Some of the parents came into the school, causing a fuss. She’s still upset.” He kept his eyes on the road.
“Did you tell Mom you were picking us up early?”
“I called the hospital. I couldn’t get through.”
“Did you call her cell phone?” I asked.
He made a face. “She doesn’t like it when I call her cell phone when she’s at work. She said to only do it when it’s an emergency.”
“An epidemic isn’t an emergency?”
“If I call her cell phone, she’ll think something happened to one of you. I’m not going to scare her. Your grandma said she called her, and your mom was in surgery. I’m sure she’ll call when she can.”
I pulled out my phone and began to type out a text.
“What are you doing?” Dad snapped.
“I’m at least going to let her know where we are and that we’re okay.”
“Put it away, Jenna. I told you, she’s in surgery. I don’t want to hear it from her later.”
“She said I could text her if it’s important.”
“Do you want her to think you’re hurt?”
I huffed and looked out the window. I watched the buildings slowly spread out until there was only farmland and refineries. We passed over the interstate toward the toll road, and I was about to ask Dad where he was going, but it didn’t take long for me to figure it out. The traffic both north and south on I-35 was still flowing, but I’d never seen it that busy before. Dad was probably going to Anderson from the south through the old Tempton highway.