Cops made Eric nervous, even though it’d been decades since he’d broken the law. Days if you counted pot, which Eric didn’t. Sheriff Martinez and Deputy Anderson were pretty laid back about that stuff, though, as long as you didn’t make it obvious. Still, cops were cops, and the station’s interview room wasn’t very inviting. Everything was too… squared away. Too orderly. The natural world left comfortable room for chaos, as Eric would tell the kids, so order at this level was unnatural.
“You want something to drink, Mr. Burroughs?” Sheriff Martinez was the sort of small and scrappy woman that you just knew could fuck you up if she had to. “Coffee, water, soda?”
Deputy Anderson, sitting next to her and across the too-rectangular table from Eric, had been one of his students thirty years ago, but he hadn’t left that strong of an impression after three decades. In Eric’s world he was just “Jayden’s dad.” One of the parents. And now, one of the cops.
“Water’s good.” Eric licked his lips, feeling very exposed, very shabby in his ill-fitting dress shirt and slacks. It was more formal than what he’d teach class in – T-shirts and jeans put the kids at ease – but this was the kind of thing you dressed up for.
He wondered if he should have shaved.
Deputy Anderson left to get Eric his drink, and the Sheriff leaned in. “How are you holding up, Mr. Burroughs?”
“Okay,” he said. “Just, you know. I feel terrible.”
She slid a hand across the table, not quite touching his arm, but over the center. “Relax. We’re not… we don’t think you did anything. We just need a statement.”
“Yeah, I know.” Her words didn’t bring him any relief. “Those kids were my responsibility, and…”
Deputy Anderson returned with his water, putting the bottle on the table between them.
Eric took the bottle but didn’t open it, turning it over in his hands. “How’s Sharon doing?”
“Katherine says she’s still pretty broken up, as you can imagine,” Deputy Anderson said. “Nobody’s blaming you, Mr. Burroughs.”
Eric shook his head. That wasn’t entirely accurate, unless he himself didn’t count. And maybe he shouldn’t.
“Let’s get started.” Sheriff Martinez set her phone up in a little tripod on the table, facing Eric. “Sheriff Felicia Martinez and Deputy Bill Anderson interviewing Mr. Eric Burroughs, Wednesday, August 23rd, 2017. 5:18 pm. Mr. Burroughs, you have been appraised of your rights to representation and have waived said right, correct?”
“Correct,” Eric said.
“And you are aware of your rights against self-incrimination?” she continued.
Sheriff Martinez sat back. “Why don’t you start at the beginning. Tell it however feels best, and we’ll ask questions as we need to.”
“Okay, well.” Eric stared at the camera’s lens. “Last week we had the students in the Astronomy Club—”
“Last week of August 10th through 15th?” Deputy Anderson interrupted.
“Yeah, I think so.” Eric paused. “Yes. On Monday, the 11th, we sent the kids in the Astronomy Club home with permission slips to go see the eclipse down in Giant City State Park.”
“Why there?” Sheriff Martinez asked.
“It offered one of the best views of the eclipse at the point of maximum totality.” Talking about his area of expertise put Eric at ease. A little. “That’s when the sun is entirely covered by the moon. Makes it more special for the kids.”
“And which kids are these?” Martinez asked.
“The missing girl, uh, Veronica Lopez. Deputy Anderson’s son Jayden. Logan Morris, Hailey Kemp, Hugo Silva, Isabelle Lu, and… Connor Shea.”
“That’s it?” the sheriff asked.
“Just those seven, yeah.”
“So, on the 21st, you took them out of class—”
“No, the school had the 21st off,” Deputy Anderson interjected.
“Why?” Sheriff Martinez asked.
“The eclipse.” Bill answered.
“Really?” she asked.
“Yeah.” He nodded.
The sheriff turned back to Eric. “Okay, so how’d you get everybody there, down to the park?”
“The school let us use one of the shuttle busses,” Eric said. “I picked the kids up from the school parking lot—”
“We dropped Jayden off there,” Bill added.
“Did all the parents drop their kids off?” the sheriff asked.
“Katherine did. So did Sharon,” Eric said.
“Katherine. Bill’s wife, Katherine,” the sheriff clarified. “Katherine Anderson.”
“Yeah, sorry.” Eric looked into the camera. “Mrs. Anderson, Mrs. Lopez, Mr. Silva, Mrs. Lu. Hailey and Connor just biked over.”
“And you drove them over from the school.” She said, as much a confirmation as anything else.
“Yeah. Down to Giant City State Park.”
“That’s a half-hour drive? 45 minutes?” she asked.
“Usually, yeah, but with all the tourists…” Eric trailed off.
“Oh, right,” Sheriff Martinez said.
The teacher stopped playing with his water bottle, putting it on the table. “Took us about an hour, but we had time.”
“Did you stop along the way?” the sheriff asked.
Eric scratched his beard. “We stopped for snacks at the Circle-K near the reservoir.”
“Where’d you park?” she asked.
“They had it set up so you could drive on through the grass and park in a clearing with a good view of the sky.”
“’They’ meaning the park district?” Sheriff Martinez asked.
“Yeah. They were all set up for the crowds.”
“How crowded was it?” Bill asked.
“Oh man,” Eric said. “Thousands of people, probably. Not just from Carbondale and Murphysboro — the kids were playing the license plate game on the way down. People from all over the Midwest, from the Southeast. Some as far as Florida.”
“Sounds like a big deal,” Deputy Anderson said.
“Total eclipse is a once-in-a-lifetime event.” Sheriff Martinez leaned back in her chair with a grin.
“Twice in a lifetime.” Eric held up two fingers.
“Yeah,” Eric leaned forward. “We’re getting another one in 2024. And it’ll cross over the park in the same place, only going the other way.” He crossed his forearms into an ‘X’ to illustrate.
“Huh,” Deputy Anderson said.
“Now that’s what makes it special,” Eric said.