She was aware of herself placing something in a bag but as soon as she managed to squeeze it in, fill the bag completely, there was another thing. And another thing. And another. Zac’s things. A jolt of adrenaline brought her thoughts to clear focus. She leant over Sean to look at the clock, making nothing more than a pretence of trying not to wake him.
‘It’s too late to go back to sleep, hun, too early to wake up.’ He whispered but his voice was alert.
How long have you been awake?’
‘Not long. I didn’t want to disturb the boys. Don’t want them up any earlier than they have to be.’
She felt the hyperawareness and nausea of over-tiredness. Every time either of the boys went away, sleeplessness broke out. Ever since they were little. Even for a sleepover. She had woken up last night, she couldn’t remember how many times, with some specific dread in mind—a bus crash, a swimming accident, a teacher turning away for a second, Zac following instructions to some terrible conclusion that she just stopped herself from imagining in detail.
Three hours’ drive was too far away.
The teachers seemed competent but she didn’t know them. If there was a crisis, if hard decisions had to be made, Zac would be just another one of the kids.
She ran through a list of warnings for Zac in her mind. About washing his hands and not kissing anyone (not that he showed any signs of being interested in kissing), not following along if his instinct tingled, who to ring in an emergency. She trusted him and it was important he knew she trusted him but what if the one thing she didn’t tell him was the one thing he needed to know?
And then there were all the things she couldn’t influence, the people she couldn’t give a stern talking to. The bus driver falling asleep, the air conditioning in the hotel spreading germs, something Zac would have no control over, something she couldn’t prevent with cautionary words. The luck of where he sat determining how he fared.
‘He doesn’t have to go.’ It slipped out, so softly she wasn’t sure Sean had heard.
***As Hannah came down the hall, Zac was in the doorway of the kitchen, silhouetted by the weak rays of the not-quite-risen sun. His edge was clear and solid. Watching him, her eyes relaxed. Yet again he took her by surprise, his slender height filling the door, his arm up, hand lazily touching the lintel. Her round and squidgy boy had been pulled out to a long strand.
Sean was a few paces into the room, leaning away from the door and the boy. Sean’s form was dark in the shadows of the kitchen, harder to make out among the clutter. He seemed solid compared to the slight, bright mirror of his son. They were saying the easy, normal, meaningless, repetitive things that had become habit. Words that started and ended everything. Zac’s clear young voice, so light it almost blew away before she could catch it, broke through Sean’s soft, low rumble. As she slid past, Zac pulled closer to the doorframe to let her by. He loosely held a piece of toast.
‘That’s not all you’re having to eat?’
‘It’s too early for food.’
The colours in the room shifted blue as she turned on the light. She made herself a cup of coffee to drink while she made Zac’s lunch, going back to the cupboard for extras—a muesli bar, some crackers, a bag of chips. Just in case. For whatever situation it was she couldn’t foresee. Zac wouldn’t eat any of them, and in five days’ time the lunch bag would come back with the extra food intact.
She turned the radio down low so as not to wake Oscar. A case in Sydney would have been the lead story, but there wasn’t one. All she got was Newcastle. Newcastle and no change, more people sick but no confirmed cases since that lone woman last week. And Thailand and Britain. Actual cases but too far away to be the justification she needed to cancel Zac’s trip. Too far away, too hard to grasp, meaningless numbers. There would be nothing official from China, yet again.
When Sean and Zac paused in their conversation, she found herself saying, ‘Do you have your phone?’
‘Is it on and charged?’
‘Yes Mum.’ A slightly impatient smile.
‘Okay then.’ But she couldn’t just let him go. ‘Be careful.’
‘I always am.’
‘Do you have some money, just in case?’
Sean, leaning against the wall, swivelled to her. ‘I gave him money. He’s fine.’
‘Don’t do anything you don’t feel comfortable with.’
Zac turned back to face her, his smile wider now, and good-natured, ‘I’m not going to be running around in the middle of the night, Mum. I promise.’
‘Of course not. Just stay safe.’ She watched him as he rifled through his bag, checking against a list from the school. His face was pinker now, so alive, as the sun took over from the cold fluoro. All she had to do to make this feeling disappear was tell him he couldn’t go.
Sean watched Zac. ‘What’s the holdup? I thought I’d be rid of you by now.’
‘I haven’t got my MP3 player.’
‘I thought they said no electronics.’
‘Yeah, but they didn’t mean it. It’s not like it’s worth any-thing.’ He rolled his eyes as he closed up the bag then threw it over one shoulder and loped through the door to the hall.
‘Quietly,’ Hannah whispered loudly to his back. ‘Oscar’s still asleep.’
‘He’s fine, you’re fine, we’re fine. So relax.’ Sean leant back against the doorframe.
‘I know but...’
‘No but.’ He looked her in the eye. ‘If you hurry back we might even get in a cup of coffee before Oscar wakes up. A whole cup of coffee with no kids actually in the room.’
She pushed past him and he followed her in silence until she paused, reluctant to let the day officially begin, at the front door. ‘So, I should drive really fast.’
‘That’s right, safely and really fast.’ He swung open the front door and stepped back to let Zac through.
‘And if I had a real phone I’d have music because Mum says I have to take my phone. So, you should write me a note ’cause if I get in trouble it’s your fault.’
‘Not a hope. Behave yourself and do all the stuff your mum said.’
Hannah gave Sean a quick kiss. As she got in the car, she turned for one more look but the door was closed.