December 19, 7:13 AM Eastern
Silver Springs, Maryland
Mark listened as his daughters talked excitedly in the back seat. The argument seemed to be about who had the best present for the school’s Christmas party, with squabbles about who the girls would play with afterward mixed in for flavor. The car stereo bleated out what sounded like a twelve-year-old singing about love. Mark cringed, as the voice was auto-tuned to hide his voice cracking. He cringed again when his oldest daughter squealed in the back seat as the singer’s voice went into a distorted crescendo.
“Girls, please don’t do that,” he said absently as he watched the traffic in front of them.
Might as well ask them to stop breathing, he thought as he turned into the drop-off line in front of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School. He turned on his windshield wipers when the rain-snow mix, which the weather lady had predicted with a wide smile the night before, started to fall.
As he waited his turn to drop off the kids, he looked at the other cars, most of which were familiar to him after two years of carpool duty. There was the usual mixture of minivans, SUV’s, and compacts, with a sprinkling of work trucks and an old white panel van with bright magnetic stickers for some plumbing business on the sides and back. Behind him, he could hear the girls’ excited voices as they recognized some classmate or another riding in one of the other cars or being dropped off.
After a few minutes of waiting, their line started to move, with green and black clad girls disgorging from comfortable seats into the cold, freezing rain for the mad dash to the school’s gym door. A young teacher, who probably drew the short straw at the last staff meeting, stood in a yellow rain slicker to open car doors and make sure students were safely on their way inside before motioning the next carload forward.
Mark watched as the passenger door on the panel van opened and a young girl, swathed from head to toe in warm clothing, hopped out and walked quickly to the school. The teacher said something to its driver with a smile, then waved as she slammed its heavy metal door shut.
The van started forward, and Mark let off the brake to ease ahead in line. Just as he was pulling even with the sidewalk, a large puff of black smoke came from the back of the van, and it lurched to a stop, causing a chain reaction of fast braking in the cars behind it.
Lovely, Mark thought, Nothing like an engine fire in carpool to start your morning. He turned his steering wheel sharply toward the sidewalk, trying to get close enough that the girls could hop out without walking through the mud in their school shoes.
Mark let off the brake and started to roll forward just as the windshield in front of him shattered and the world filled with light and a deafening noise.