Eva Epelbaum left work early to pick up her son Jake from the nurse’s office at Lincoln Middle School. Speeding west on Pico Boulevard in her hatchback, she planned her next hour. She’d rush him home, get him into bed, give him Pepto and saltines, and be back at her desk by the end of lunch to meet this afternoon’s deadline. But ten minutes into her commute, Eva sat trapped in gridlock on a two-lane street. She rolled down the windows and looked out at the restaurants and liquor stores that lined Pico. Anything to avert her eyes from the car’s digital clock that taunted her with every passing minute.
This was the third time this month that Jake had called asking to be picked up from school. Normally, she convinced him to lay in bed in the nurse’s office till he felt better. Being a single mother didn’t afford her the luxury of leaving work to bring him home early. She was forty-three years old. She caked make-up on her face each morning in an attempt to hide her wrinkles. Her brunette hair stayed wrapped tight in a bun. Four workouts a week kept her in good health, but the stress of going through a divorce made her body stay soft.
Eva knew she’d never get back to work on time in this traffic. After inching forward far enough, she turned onto a side street. She drove past suburban homes she couldn’t afford. Two blocks later, she reached a dead end, the concrete structure of the 10 freeway blocked her path.
She looked around to back up, but stopped driving when something in the rear window caught her eye. The house to her left was on fire. Flames danced along the wooden roof. Thick smoke pushed against the glass windows, begging to escape into the eco-friendly neighborhood. No neighbors stepped outside to investigate. Waiting for the firemen would make her late, but if there was somebody inside the house, she refused to leave them trapped.
Eva pulled her phone out of her purse to dial 911. She didn’t notice the man walking up behind her.
He reached through the open window and grabbed her hair. She screamed, but went silent at the sight of a thin black rifle aimed at her head. The man had a chubby face, but thin body, and looked no older than twenty-three. His eyes stayed fixed on hers. He wore black body armor, a jacket, and cargo pants.
“Hang up,” he said. “Turn off the car.” The weapon’s weight made his arms shake.
Eva’s first instinct was to floor the car in reverse. But the cold metal touching her forehead left her paralyzed. Who’d take care of her son if this man killed her? she thought. Not Jake’s father. Her ex-husband was drying out on a farm up north, living with a woman he claimed “understood” him better.
She took a staggered breath to keep calm and turned off the engine. The gunman let go of her hair. He grabbed the phone out of her hand, threw it on the ground and stomped it with his boot.
“Please. Take my car.” She offered him the keys that jangled in her trembling hand.
He shook his head and pushed the muzzle against her cheek. “You’re driving. I don’t know how.”
He pressed the unlock button inside her window and opened the back door. Picking up a duffle bag off the concrete, he sat in the backseat. The gun hovered behind her head.
She took sharp breaths, beginning to hyperventilate. Behind her, the house’s roof crackled like firewood. She wondered if this man had set it on fire. If he didn’t, did it matter? She feared she’d black out.
“Please don’t hurt me,” she said between breaths. “I have a son. He’s sick at school. I was just going to pick him up.”
“I’m not gonna hurt you. I’m not gonna hurt anybody.”
She shut her eyes. “You have a gun—”
“In case someone tries to hurt me.” He put on his seatbelt. “We’re just going to Santa Monica College. It’s only a mile. Drop me off and I’ll let you go.”
If Eva had a way out of this situation, she couldn’t see it. She turned on the car, made a three-point turn and drove back down the residential street. Only now did elderly neighbors step outside, more focused on the smoke coming from the house than the car leaving it.
Eva reached Pico and turned right toward the college. Her eyes danced back and forth, now viewing the traffic as a last hope that bought her time. Roads that ran perpendicular to Pico were numbered. She passed 27th Street, descending toward the college on 16th. She remembered a couple months back, reading about a boy who’d entered an elementary school in Connecticut and killed twenty first graders. She could no longer play naïve about who this man was or what would happen if she drove him to the college.
“I don’t want to do this,” she said. “I can take you somewhere else. Somewhere that can help you.”
“What, you’re a doctor now?” He sat forward. His breath grazed her neck. She shook her head. “Don’t tell me what to do.”
“Didn’t mean anything by it.” She raised her hands, letting go of the wheel.
Outside, a car horn honked. He darted toward the sound, gun raised. “We’re going to the school library,” he said. “It’s safe there. Only place I ever feel safe.”
Eva continued driving in silence. She wished she were a doctor, someone who’d know how to talk to him. But she worked in PR. Her only experience dealing with psychology came from talking to her ex about his drinking problem.
“What if we went to see your parents?” she said. She used “we” and not “you,” a technique she’d learned in Al-Anon to sound like they’d work through this together.
“You saw the house,” he said. “They’re gone.” Their eyes met in the rearview mirror. “My dad was holding a knife to my mom’s throat. I couldn’t just stand there.”
“You killed your mom too?”
“Not on purpose.”
Eva tried not to imagine a life of violence that’d brought him to this point. A life she worked so hard to shelter her son from. “Can I ask—?”
“Stop talking.” He aimed the gun at her head. “Just drive.”
Eva didn’t know how this boy in her backseat was capable of hurting anyone. She scanned the road, looking for a police car, anything that could save her.
Two blocks later, a solution arrived. A Big Blue Bus traveled toward her in the opposite lane and Eva considered crashing into it. The impact would kill her—if he didn’t shoot her first. She wondered, was her life worth sacrificing to save the college students? At first, she thought no. She’d save so many parents the unspeakable pain of surviving their children. But in return, her son would bury her. Then she thought yes. She was middle-aged, just an office worker. Perhaps she’d die to save someone who’d cure cancer or fix global warming. Jake’s father would have to take him in. Maybe his new girlfriend, the “understanding” one, would turn out to be a good step-mother. Eva couldn’t stand the thought of giving that stranger her family. But she’d never be able to live with herself if she did nothing to stop this massacre.
Her hands clutched the steering wheel at ten and two. She rubbed the wheel’s faux-leather and looked up at the endless panorama of blue sky, knowing soon she’d leave it all behind. She wished for nothing more than to pause, call her son, and say goodbye.
She floored the accelerator and threw a sharp turn.
“The bus”—he dug his fingers into her shoulder—“don’t let it hit us. There’s a bomb in my bag. It’ll explode if we crash.”
Shock gripped her heart and broke her will to crash. She swerved back into her lane and slowed to a stop behind a truck at the red light on 20th. Across the street, the bus stalled in front of Campos Tacos to open its doors. She caught her breath and tried to forgive herself for almost leaving her son motherless. Her responsibility to him always came first. It had since he was born.
The gunman stared at the bus, sweat covered his brow and neck. He racked the rifle, pushed the car door open, and fired at the people onboard. Bullets sprayed from his gun three rounds per second. Eva screamed, shut her eyes, and covered her ears, thinking her eardrums might explode at the noise of shells shattering the sound barrier. She wanted to floor the car through the intersection, but the truck in front of her stayed stopped. The driver’s silhouetted figure sat frozen, staring at his rearview mirror. She thought to get out and run, but knew the gunman could pop her in the back with the slightest pivot.
Within seconds the clip emptied. Eva uncovered her ears and noise flooded into the car. Onboard the bus, people screamed. Glass and plastic fell onto the cement. Air squeaked from deflated tires.
The light turned green and the truck cut across traffic to make a right turn. She drove through the intersection with her head down. When the cops showed up, she thought, they wouldn’t know the difference between her and the killer. But if she made it through this, if she told her story, nobody would blame her for driving the gunman. They’d say, how tragic, what if we’d lost you? They’d see her as a victim, no different than the people on the bus.
She drove past 18th Street. Two intersections ahead, the college’s five-story parking structure served as a beacon that they’d arrived.
“It’s not too late to turn around,” she said. “We can go wherever you want. I’ll help you get through this.”
He pulled a magazine out of his duffle bag and reloaded the gun. “This library’s the safest place I know.” He pointed to the parking lot entrance. “Turn here.”
No oncoming traffic blocked her. Tears ran down her cheeks as she took a left onto the college. He directed her to the end of the driveway where traffic bollards blocked cars from entering campus and told her to park. She shut her eyes. Now that he didn’t need her, she believed he’d kill her.
He opened the backseat door, picked up his bag and exited the car. “I hope your kid feels better.” He turned and ran between the bollards, disappearing around a building onto campus.
Eva put a hand over her mouth and dared not breathe. She thought to turn the car around and pick up Jake. See him once before the cops arrested her, suspicious of her involvement. Before parents—who would in moments lose their children—came after her with lawyers.
She listened for the gunfire, but heard nothing. Then she remembered the bomb. If he’d been telling the truth, he was probably planting it now. Once it exploded and people ran from their classrooms, he’d be in position to gun them down. Eva lived with many regrets. She’d let another woman take her husband. She’d let her husband leave their son. She’d let herself deliver a gunman to school unharmed. But she couldn’t let these people meet their fates unwarned.
As she ran her hand along the window and door, hoping the steel and glass would protect her, she thought of Jake. She tried to focus on his birth, his first steps, his first day of school, but the memories that flooded in were the times they dropped off his dad at rehab, the time she sat him on his bed to explain why his parents were divorcing. The times he needed her most. Now this college needed her most, she decided. She only hoped she’d see her boy again.
To get around the bollards, she drove onto a rose bed. She entered campus, passing the fountain and cafeteria where students ate lunch, and rolled down her windows.
“Run. There’s a gunman on the loose. He’s coming to kill you.” She honked her horn and screamed. The students glanced up from their textbooks and cups of noodles. They gave her the same looks she gave homeless people who barked about the end of the world at the promenade. Nobody wanted to panic for fear they’d look like fools. In her backseat, shell casings littered the floor. She picked them up and threw them onto the cement. “He’s gonna kill you. You need to run.”
Two buildings ahead, the gunman bolted across campus. He ran up the steps into the library. For about thirty seconds, she heard nothing. Then a woman screamed and a rifle fired. Eva put her foot on the brake. She stared at the entrance, waiting to see who would come out.
Eric Z. Weintraub is the author of the novella Dreams of an American Exile (1888, 2015) and a recipient of the inaugural Plaza Literary Prize. He lives in L.A., where he shoots and produces the Telly Award winning foster youth web-series The Storyboard Project.