AACCORDING TO EVACUATION PROTOCOL, the oldest children, four-year-olds, would be first to exit the building. They had been taught to form a chain with linked hands behind their teacher and follow her through the door in the direction of the soccer field, then all the way to the tennis courts, where they were to sit crisscross-applesauce against the fence until the drill concluded. The courts were thought to be an ideal gathering place—a safe, contained spot—and beyond any potential blast radius. After the four-year-olds went the three- and two-year-olds in that same configuration. Next went the babies twelve to eighteen months, placed by fours into wheeled cribs and pushed to safety. Finally the newborns, some of whom had been curled inside the warm pink echoes of their mothers just six weeks prior and could not yet hold up their heads. The only way to dispatch these littlest of souls was àla carte—in a one-to-one ratio—by any teachers and office workers left.
While in years past, evacuation drills at the Kaiserman Jewish Community Center took place only every few months, now they occurred every other week. Jackie Mather’s eyes wandered to the huge hamsa hand hanging on the office wall behind Rachel Koffman, director of the early childhood program, as she explained the need for increased security in the current “political atmosphere.” The hand, cut from brown craft paper, was filled with tiny handprints in primary colors. Drips from some of the hands hung down like bright, frozen tears. “Vulnerable target” was a unit of language Jackie also heard, but she was having trouble concentrating on the actual words coming from Director Koffman’s chapsticked mouth. Jackie was nervous, desperate for this job, and she did not want to disappoint her mother. For the interview, her mother suggested the same dress Jackie had worn for high school graduation, a navy blue shift, and white pointed flats that made her feet look like speedboats.
Glancing at her watch, Director Koffman explained that an evacuation drill was scheduled shortly and they would need to hurry along lest their time together be cut short, so, “Ms. Mather, tell me about a time when your character was most tested—how were you able to overcome the challenges set before you?” But then, as if on cue, all the alarms in the building began to blare. The sound was loud almost to the point of hilarity—half scream, half buzz—and accompanied by white-hot, pulsing strobes. Sorry! Director Koffman mouthed, excusing herself to choreograph the staff and students out the door. Jackie was relieved not to have to regale her would-be employer with the lame Camp Tawonga ropes course story, the only example of a character test she was willing to revisit.
Layered beneath the siren sounds came the apologetic screech of little sneakers across the linoleum hallway. Edging to the doorway to watch, Jackie was struck by the astonishing number of children—were there hundreds?—making their way out of the building in calm, controlled succession. “We’re having an adventure!” Director Koffman cheered, as ropes of hand-holding children flowed through the doors, a river of T-shirts. “An exciting adventure!” When it was all over, the three- and four-year-olds got popsicles, and Jackie, hired on the spot for the teacher’s helper position, helped rub down the stickiest ones with wet wipes.
This was how, despite her complete lack of both childcare experience and appropriate anecdotes, Jackie became the newest employee at the KJCC. It was an impressive longstanding facility in the suburban Mountain Brook community. In addition to offering fitness classes, swim lessons, Mah Jong and book groups, youth and adult Torah study, and an array of after-school programs, the KJCC maintained the most desirable daycare in town. Because the waitlist for admission was so long, it was not unusual for families to reserve their spot by shelling out tuition while their child was still in utero, no bigger than a bean.
Though she had grown up only blocks away, Jackie had not attended preschool here. Her mother, a first-time parent in her early forties, left her law practice to stay at home with her child. Still, their family enjoyed the many benefits of the center in relation to both physical and spiritual fitness. Jackie had spent summers swimming for the KJCC Barracudas and running on their track, and in the spring accompanied her parents to the annual Passover Seder—the only reliably Jewish thing her family ever did. This was not counting the dreidel game, played randomly throughout the year for chocolate chips or Skittles, and sometimes remembering to light the menorah in the midst of Christmas season, usually somewhere between Hanukkah’s third and fifth night.
Jackie had to admit, she really liked it when they remembered. She liked the shiny brass menorah, her grandmother’s, how by night eight it looked like a glimmering canoe with flame-headed passengers. The family would often go out to the street to admire how festive the menorah looked in the window, outlined by the varicolored LED lights Jackie’s father always strung around the exterior of the house. He had been raised Protestant, but Judaism was traced through the maternal line. Jackie’s mother and her mother’s friends assured Jackie that despite her waspy exterior, she was Jewish. Jewish, one hundred percent.
“But, really? Only half.” Jackie would playfully flip her blonde hair for effect. “If that.”
“Are you my daughter or a pie chart?” her mother would counter. “Your story is your story.”
Jackie loved the theatrics of Seder at the KJCC. She loved the plastic lipstick smell of the old women, the men in newly pressed trousers holding open the door, all the neighborhood kids dressed in their scratchiest best. A contrast to her own family’s customary fare of spaghetti and tacos, the Seder meal was curious yet thrilling: bright parsley dipped in salt water, matzah with spicy-sweet charoset, and the fiery horseradish Jackie challenged herself to eat by the spoonful. The litany of plagues often sent the children into giggles as they flicked dots of grape juice onto their white paper plates and, covertly, each other. Still, the Haggadah’s sober narrative didn’t exactly feel like her story. Why is this night different from all other nights? Jackie wasn’t sure. She also wasn’t sure why, with supposed plagues abounding, the Seder meal ended with opening the front door. Wouldn’t it be safer to keep it shut? She stared at Elijah’s full glass of purple Manischewitz as if the answers might be found there, its ripples tremors of the mystical instead of bored kids kicking each other beneath the table.
How long had Jackie’s parents been waiting by the door, radiating both anxiety and relief as their daughter’s hatchback, stuffed with box fans, notebooks, and trash bags of dirty laundry, pulled into the driveway? There was supposed to be the Real Job after college, secured by her dual degree in poli sci and art history from an elite liberal arts school—and the monumental debt that went with it. And when that goal went unachieved because, among other things, Jackie had taken no steps to actually achieve it, there seemed to be no other option but to move back home. Inside the house, Jackie found the familiar scent of citrus air freshener and a job advertisement that read Teacher’s Helper Wanted tacked to the kitchen bulletin board beside her yellowing drawing of a rainbow bent between two clouds, J-A-C-K-I-E crayoned into the sky. Next to that was a recent headline from the Times: Jewish Cemetery Vandalized in Philadelphia.
Later, Jackie’s mother appeared at her bedroom door with a dusty tub of Madame Alexander dolls that had been buried in the basement for years. “Of course you’ll need to practice,” she said, handing Jackie a mothball-scented baby. It wore a bitty white bonnet and dress. “Like this.” Her mother held the doll to her bosom to demonstrate the correct posture. “Now, you,” she directed, as Jackie began to sneeze. A dark cloud of mold spores lingered on the doll’s forehead, trailing like ants on parade down its face and onto the dress. A baby in a red and while dirndl was likewise afflicted. So was the one with matted blonde hair. Thus, into the garbage bin they all went, dead eyes popped wide to wet coffee grounds, uneaten oatmeal, and bananas too far gone.
Fortunately, the three-year-olds at the KJCC to whom Jackie was assigned barely wanted to be held at all. She remained nervous about her inexperience, but Ms. Alley, the classroom’s head teacher, waved off those concerns like invisible flies. “Eh,” she said, “kids bounce.” Alley was in her early fifties, with Kool-Aid pink hair, a few vaguely Celtic tattoos, and a freakishly loud speaking voice—years of following the Grateful Dead had left her deaf in one ear. She told Jackie that before accepting her current post she had freelanced as a substitute art teacher, and one night a week still moonlighted as an instructor at Pinot’s Palette, a kind of art-for-dummies establishment that touted “paint night”—a pun on date night—for couples.
“The best thing about that crappy job?” At the end of her shift, Alley was permitted to commandeer any paintings abandoned by tipsy OkCupid dates: a blobby sunflower, a streetlamp pulsing light, a baguette-looking Jesus cross. The next day, Alley would merrily tote these crude canvases to school for the kids to decorate with sequins and glitter glue. Once, Alley came into class holding up a painting of two dolphin silhouettes leaping from a sea of blue scratches into a heart-shaped sherbet horizon. “As if this relationship exists,” Alley sighed.
“What about you?” Alley asked. “I suppose you haven’t found any boys in this town worth your time?” Jackie squinted at the painting, searching for an apropos witticism. Were those more hearts emerging from the distant clouds? “That bad, huh?” Alley asked. “Well, cheers to us, then,” she said, presenting Jackie with a chocolate milk.
“To us,” Jackie managed, as they bumped their cartons together.
When it came to relationships—both platonic and romantic—Jackie preferred casting her isolation as a choice, a self-sufficiency cultivated like one of her mother’s finely pruned bonsai trees. On social media, “Not over it” should be an option. Instead, Jackie had to choose “It’s complicated.” Freshman year she dated swimmer John, a beautiful breaststroker with silky, bleached hair, but his religion frowned upon premarital sex, and he seemed to want to spend all his time playing first-person-shooter video games. Sophomore year, Jackie was off-and-on with Ryan from political theory. In class discussions he was wonderfully articulate describing the nature of a just society, but out of class he expressed pretty much nothing at all. Then there was Thomas, the playwright who rubbed buttercups beneath her chin. She liked butter every time. He had an astonishingly large ribcage that she hoped might house a creature she could care for—something like a bird to pluck and feed. But his one-act told the tale of an aging professor seduced by his young pupil, and no singing sounds came from him, not a peep.
What was true? That Jackie had given up on boyfriends? Goodbye and so long to expectations? Hello to swiping right, then swiping right again? At first, hooking up seemed simple and fun. She liked all that foamy beer in red plastic cups. She liked CVS cologne on showered necks, mint gum liquor breath, electric fingers with the lights out. One guy’s petal kisses, another’s deep, sure tongue. Dude with a backwards baseball hat. Hipster with a man-bun. And Jackie? She could be Jackie-but-not, an impersonation of herself. Here was Jackie-ish in last night’s dress, performing the walk of shame across campus like she might be anyone, no one, another pebble on the path tramped by her own Payless heel.
“I love Jewish holidays,” Alley announced one morning as she attempted to unlatch a felt locust lodged in little Henry’s mass of curly hair. The school was preparing to celebrate Passover. While Jackie had declined the invitation to accompany her parents to this year’s KJCC Seder, she was dazzled by Alley’s fanciful interpretation of the occasion. Alley devoted herself completely to class projects, often putting in extra hours at home—how else could she have finished that life-sized igloo made entirely of milk jugs, or the Roman aqueduct constructed from dried ziti noodles?
Her piècederésistance, however, was her blanket of plagues for Pesach. For this, she cut out plague-shaped pieces of felt, then attached strips of Velcro to one side. Next, she affixed compatible strips of Velcro all over a surplus army blanket so enormous that the children could stretch it all the way across the classroom to make a fort. The blanket was thick and heavy, and the kids could remove and re-stick all the blood, frogs, lice, flies, locusts, boils, and hail. Being plagues, they spread. Flies turned up in the floor puzzles, lice appeared in the tub of Legos. Alley never quite figured out how to fashion the last plague, darkness, but she and Jackie agreed that darkness could be crawling inside.
Then, just as the locust in Henry’s hair was finally coming free, every alarm in the building began to blare.
“Shit, this early?” Alley groaned, giving the locust one final rip. “It’s okay, class,” she reassured them, already beginning, as per protocol, to count students’ heads. Jackie stood up from her tiny chair at the tiny table where she’d been helping Samuel and Samantha, twins, string colorful plastic beads onto a stretch of red yarn. During evacuation drills it was Jackie’s job to assemble the children into a single-file line with their fingers on the wall. While Alley confirmed who was present, Jackie quickly finished tying the beaded necklace around Samuel’s throat.
“But it’s my necklace!” Samantha shouted.
“Seven, eight,” Alley paused. “Hey, Jackie?”
“Just a sec.” Jackie’s knot did not hold, and the beads from Samuel’s necklace fell to the floor, scattering like hail as Director Koffman appeared at their door. She was red-cheeked, wheezing. “Against the wall now, kiddos,” Jackie sang, trying to make a show of competence for her boss. “Fingers on that wall. Line up!” Finally the class obeyed, their sticky fingers pressed to taped-up drawings of monarch butterflies with handprint wings. Last week they’d watched the caterpillar they’d been raising hatch from its cocoon and try to fly around inside its plastic container.
“This is not a drill,” Director Koffman said, as if quoting an action movie.
Alley rolled her eyes. “Another fire.” Small fires were a regular occurrence in the facility’s industrial kitchen, mainly used for school lunches and kosher meals. “Are you kidding?”
But nobody was kidding. In slow motion, Jackie watched Director Koffman’s lips silently spell the word B-O-M-B. A tall, clear birdfeeder was suctioned to their classroom window. Jackie watched a chickadee dip its beak in for seed, then fly swiftly away.
“Everyone out!” the director ordered.
During the many evacuation exercises they had completed, the teachers were able to guide students neatly from the classrooms out into the hall and through the exit in a well-ordered manner. The children had been obedient, quiet, straight-backed dominos. But this was not an exercise, and despite Director Koffman’s careful crisis planning, all ten classrooms emptied instantly—and now the teachers, children, and staff clutching à la carte babies and rolling cribs shoved their bodies through the narrow atrium toward the door in a glut of confusion. Jackie lost her spot as the caboose for her room’s line but kept saying “All right now” to the back of Henry’s curly head, which she could barely see. Soft, shaky voices were singing “You Are My Sunshine.” The floor was slippery where a child had spilled a sippy cup or a teacher had spilled her coffee. Would they be stuck like this—body-to-body, breath-to-breath—for hours? Years? No, as the authorities would tell them later, the evacuation had been completed in less than five minutes—an acceptable time.
How exactly the baby came to be in Jackie’s arms as she stepped from the siren-filled building into that cloudless afternoon, who could say? She thought she’d heard a voice command, “Here.” And then it was—there—the child, impossibly light in her arms, like a grocery bag that appears way too heavy until you pick it up. The baby had a spice to it—sour milk, sweet milk, diaper perfume. It squiggled against her chest, making vague digestive grunts as Jackie pushed her nose into its velvet head, breathing in that certain smell she knew would be there. Together, they followed the others into the field.
Jackie was staring at a red speckled birthmark on the baby’s head, trying to decide if it looked more like Greenland or a bullfrog. She looked up to see the three-year-olds sitting along the net of one of the tennis courts, rolling neon balls back and forth between them.
“They’re saying the call was automated,” Alley puffed, winded.
“Look how amazing they are,” Jackie said in the direction of the children.
“Automated. Like, some kind of robot or something.”
The baby began to make unhappy whimpering noises, and Jackie started to sway, spontaneously, from side to side. “What did the message say?” Jackie asked.
“Not sure exactly,” Alley paused. “Something about slaughtering a lot of Jews. A bloodbath.” She reached down to open Goldfish baggies for Samuel and Samantha and to put another straw in another juice box for another kid. She paused, holding the straw, as if considering how Jackie might handle what was coming next. “It said it would blow the head off every last sleeping baby.”
Jackie liked being at home. At first, she thought she wouldn’t, but she liked falling asleep in her childhood bedroom, gazing up through the skylight, a hole her parents had cut from the roof just for her. She liked seeing the stars stay put up there. She even liked how, at the grocery store, her mother let her pick out any kind of cereal she wanted.
“Listen,” Alley said, “they aren’t letting us call the parents, but I’m already getting texts. Someone must have tweeted it.” She held up her phone. It blasted with frantic messages:
What is going on?
Do you have the twins???
OMG on my way!!
Jackie thought of her own mother getting a call from one of the receptionists, Doris, Kate, or Irene. “They’re coming,” Alley said. “We need to be ready.”
Before the parents arrived, the emergency units came, speeding like angry bulls down Montclair Boulevard and into the KJCC parking lot. Fire trucks, ambulances, police cars and motorcycles, even an army truck of some kind. The figures tumbling from these vehicles were dressed in yellow hazmat suits and military gear. One group set to work blocking the lot’s entry with orange cones and laying caution tape around the perimeter, while others helped usher the last of the elderly patrons from the building, some with walkers and canes. Next, a round of men holding rifles entered the place with German shepherds.
In one of Jackie’s required poli sci courses, PSC 220: Introduction to Domestic Extremism and Hate Groups, Jackie learned that radical hate groups were on the rise, especially those connected with white supremacist factions. To help the class grasp the influence of the most active umbrella organizations, the professor distributed a detailed handout listing Ku Klux Klan, anti-Muslim, neo-Confederate, white nationalist, racist skinhead, anti-LGBTQ, and neo-Nazi groups. On the white board, the professor drew an umbrella in blue marker, the group names scrawled inside it. At the time, the names were just there to put on flashcards and memorize. But now mini-vans and station wagons hurtled over curbs and onto the grass outside the KJCC parking lot. Frantic parents, sweating through their work clothes, rushed to find their children among the mass of others gathered on the tennis courts. Jackie thought she recognized her mother’s white Volvo in a row of other Volvos.
“Whose baby is this?” Jackie began to zigzag around the tennis court, approaching teachers who were patiently trying to appease and organize the children as they waited for the go-ahead to release them to their parents. “Does anybody know?” The baby startled awake and began to wail as Jackie made a beeline for Director Koffman, who was speaking into two walkie-talkies at once. “Excuse me,” Jackie said, feeling the tears come, “but what should I do with this baby?”
There was no bomb. They were calling it a hoax. After an hour, the whole place had been checked by the authorities and given the all-clear. One of the teachers hurried over to claim Rosie, the infant Jackie had been carrying. Jackie watched the teacher gently offer the child to a woman who’d been gripping the tennis court’s chain-link fence with such intensity that her knuckles made a row of bone ghosts. The teachers kept a log to account for each child as the stunned, furious parents approached to collect their own. The resiliency of the children, who recovered instantly, presented a stark contrast to the overwhelmed adults. What a strange and silly day, the students might have thought. In Director Koffman’s words, What an adventure!
By that evening, local and national media reported that the Kaiserman Jewish Community Center had not been alone; more than seventy Jewish community centers across the country had received bomb threats that same day. The threats came within minutes of each other, with the identical recorded message: the same threat of bloodbath, of babies’ heads blown off. The recording had been leaked and was already posted to YouTube, though Jackie could not make herself listen. Alley messaged a spoof video on Twitter that showed the threat coming straight from the mouth of the president. But it was just a prank, the pundits agreed, a prank designed to scare and intimidate. Still, Jackie had trouble sleeping that night. Each time she closed her eyes she saw the baby, little Rosie, and her mother’s row of hot, white knuckles. She saw her own mother’s red, squished-up face as she’d run from the Volvo toward Jackie, straight out of her silver Birkenstocks.
Some parents took their children out of school for a few days following the incident. Some proceeded with hesitancy, grateful to receive proof-of-life text messages from the teachers throughout the day. See! Their own living kid on the seesaw! At story time! Sitting around the table for snack! Of course there were also parents who found themselves memorizing the sight of their child’s bobbing backpack as if it might be the very last image of their precious baby alive, because why shouldn’t the same fate befall their Lucy, their Benjamin, their Elizabeth, their Daniel as had all the other children murdered in their classrooms? In a surge of panic those parents might scoop up their wee one and head back to the car, then back home, then back under the covers, where maybe they would stay forever.
A few days later, another bomb threat came in to the KJCC and to more than one hundred other Jewish community centers in the nation.
“Here we go again,” Alley sighed.
This time, the evacuation went off without a hitch. The teachers and students remembered their roles and were able to act from previous experience. Jackie quickly and easily coaxed the children away from the butterflies she’d been teaching them to construct from clothespins and tissue paper and toward their spots against the wall. There was no whining, no tears, and Jackie only had to swallow a dime-sized knot of fear in her throat. “We’re expert evacuators!” Director Koffman cheered as the whole school streamed through the doors to the tennis courts once more. The authorities were in and out of the center within fifteen minutes, and the parents were only contacted after the children were safely back in their classrooms eating apple slices. The day went on as usual. A baby was not thrust into Jackie’s arms, though she had been careful to walk with them wide open.
How quickly they all adapted to this new vileness. “These acts of anti-Semitic terrorism must not be allowed to endure in our communities,” said Adam Geller, the director of strategic performance at the JCC Association of North America, but by the end of the month close to three hundred centers had experienced similar threats. The KJCC was forced to double down on their already tight security situation, which included stationing off-duty police officers at the entrances and changing out all the regular windows for bulletproof ones, including the window in Alley and Jackie’s classroom. The birdfeeder had to be removed.
“There is no viable danger,” an email to the parents read. And, the thing was, it seemed to be true. The more often the sirens screamed, the less Jackie could hear them. There was work to do, the alphabet to teach, spills to clean. Soon, parents no longer snatched their children back as they walked with oversized backpacks into the school or texted for updates throughout the day. To calm her nerves, Alley had been downing two Benadryl with a bottle of wine each night. Now wine alone would do. “The local and national authorities are working around the clock to make sure those who were responsible for terrorizing our community will be stopped and brought to justice,” the weekly email read. “In the meantime, please remember to do your part to keep our children safe by observing the no-nuts policy.”
When the story broke, Jackie was at home with her parents watching the nightly news. The suspect was a nineteen-year-old Israeli kid who’d turned his basement bedroom into a makeshift control center where he sold bomb threats on the dark web at thirty bucks a pop. Apparently his services were much sought after and garnered rave reviews. “Badass!” one customer gushed. “School was let out and our teacher had to cancel the final exam!” To whom, exactly, these threats were being sold was still being determined, though at least one customer had been located in California.
“I don’t understand,” Jackie’s mother said. She was immobilized in her recliner, weighted down by their two obese cats. Jackie’s father liked to play solitaire on his laptop while he watched TV.
“What don’t you understand?” he asked, looking up.
“Well,” Jackie’s mother said, scratching the tabby’s flea-bitten backside, “isn’t he Jewish?”
Jackie thought back to that poli sci course, to the enormous blue umbrella her professor had sketched upon the whiteboard and filled with terms for hate groups. Even with her glasses on, one word bled into the next.
A full-time position became available at the KJCC, working the front desk. The extra hours meant Jackie could make more of a dent in her student loans, and even though she was going to miss Alley and the children, the responsible choice was to take it. It would mean no more lunches at home on a random Tuesday watching golf on mute with her father while her mother shush-shushed around the kitchen in slippers making them ham sandwiches.
The departing receptionist, Kate, had a shock of white hair—a bolt against her dark curls.
“Unlock the front door first thing, then just go behind the desk and sit there,” she explained to Jackie during their one and only training session.
“Sit here,” Jackie echoed, staring at an intimidating bulwark of phones and a newly installed panic button.
“That’s it!” Kate exclaimed. Kate was Jackie’s age and had also landed at the KJCC as a failsafe after college. Now she was leaving for the local vocational school to train as some kind of technician—ultrasound or MRI—whichever’s probe was more exact.
“Okay,” Jackie said. “Just sit. Thanks!” Kate left.
There must be something else for her to do. She began to thumb through the aerobics schedule, wondering what the difference might be between Body Pump and Body Flow. She began to count the Stars of David scattered around, the kind made from two triangles stuck on top of each other. Some of the star shapes were obvious: the granite plaque, for instance, listing board members and donors. But some were not immediately apparent: wood beam patterns on the ceiling, the star she thought she glimpsed on a patron’s necklace.
“Wait!” Kate reappeared in the lobby, startling Jackie from her daze. “I forgot. Whenever someone walks in—even some total skeeze—you’re supposed to say, ‘Welcome!’”
“Got it!” Jackie called out.
Funneling through the foyer came a group of elderly women dressed for the noon water aerobics class. Like the children who’d learned to join hands, the women steadied each other, elbows hooked, as they swiped their membership cards and proceeded in the direction of the pool. “Welcome,” Jackie said, following the patchwork of bathing caps, robes, and flip-flops through the new bulletproof glass doors to the pool area. She took a deep, full breath of chlorinated air, then returned to her desk to sit and wait to open the door for whatever appeared next. The panic button glowed red, lit with man-made fluorescence.
Lauren Slaughter is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and author of a lesson in smallness (National Poetry Review). Recent work appears in New South,Pleiades, and Four Way Review. She is editor in chief of Nelle, a literary journal that publishes writing by women. More at www.laurenslaughter.com.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.