teams had assembled outside of the school and were awaiting orders.
The county sheriff, a lean, muscled, good-looking man, was giving
orders in a rapid-fire sequence. “Team One, hold your position.
Team Two, proceed to the loading door. Prepare for entry.
Jimmy, I want shooters on the roofs of those buildings over there
and over there and I want them now. Jackie? I need you
to do press control. Get everyone back behind those lines.
No press and no spectators had better come within a hundred yards
of this area. If anyone crosses that line, start arresting
people. Roberta, you had better start calling the hospitals.
This one looks bad.” Sheriff Leon McGovern was in solid control
of the law enforcement in this worsening situation. The only
problem was that the law enforcement community was only half of
the whole. The other half of the equation was the gunman inside.
But considering the fact that the worst thing that the small town
sheriff had ever dealt with until now was a convenience store robbery,
he was doing quite well. No one around him could see just
how unnerved he really was. But his wife, who knew him so
well, saw his exquisite fear and immense control.
of Channel 10 news had climbed a fence with her cameraman.
The press line was well back to the rolling green hills that encircled
the school like a moat. But Denise never liked being contained
and she liked Sheriff McGovern even less. She saw this as
the perfect opportunity to publicly embarrass him and drive him
out of office. Her bleached, perfectly quaffed hair dropped
in her face and in one sweeping motion she tucked it back behind
her petite ears. If she was really lucky, she would catch
the teams he was commanding screwing up a rescue maneuver and give
the parents of the deceased children the opportunity to sue him.
That would be blissful for her. Of course, a small part of
her felt horrible about the deaths of the students, especially at
the hands of one of their peers, but her need for vengeance went
beyond the needs of anyone else. As she played out the sequence
of events in her mind, an old quote came back to her: Hell hath
no fury like a woman scorned.
that Denise was out of her mind. He was trying to heft his
camera and stay inconspicuous at the same time as he and the bitch
reporter he worked with hugged a low wall under the shade of some
trees. He knew what her real motivation was and he was appalled
at her inhuman disregard for the parents, the teachers and the law.
He would have refused to go but for the fact that the producer of
the evening news had crackled something in his ear piece about being
fired if he didn’t accompany her. But at the moment, he was
losing the game of watching his footing, trying to aim the camera,
keeping an eye on the cops and looking for something newsworthy
to shoot. His thoughts kept returning to his next door neighbor,
Sally. Her two boys were in tenth and twelfth grade at the
high school. There had been no word yet as to who had made
it out and who was still trapped inside. His heart broke as
he thought of Sally, who was high-strung to begin with, and how
panicked she must be. He and Denise paused, with their backs
against the wall, and he thanked God Almighty that his kids were
in a private school.
was in a frenzy. She was running around the parking lot grabbing
people by the arm. She had not heard from her kids and she
was in a frenetic state of mind. She had already talked to
her husband who was on his way to the school from his office.
He tried to calm her down, despite his own dread but he knew that
once Sally hit that level of anxiety, the only recourse was to let
it run. Sally had a history of overacting. The heavy
rainstorms, the drought, the Gulf War. At one point she had
been convinced that the draft would start again and that her husband
would be taken away to Kuwait. But this time, she had the
right to be frantic. The rumors were wild and numerous.
People were saying that there were anywhere from one to five gunmen,
randomly executing students as they found them. Some people
had heard that there were twenty-three confirmed deaths, while others
said that everyone had been spared. There was even a crazy
rumor that it was an elaborate scheme to getting money and attention
and that the shots fired were warning shots alone; that the whole
thing was one big hostage situation. But because she hadn’t
heard from her kids, no messages on her cell phone or at home, Sally
was blind with panic, near to pulling her hair out.
of Tommy’s, the local convenience store, watched from the relative
distance of his shop-front. The school parking lots were a
seething mass of human chaos. No one knew exactly what was
going on and everyone was looking for someone they knew, loved,
or heard was still missing. He had been standing out front
watching the whole thing as it unfolded for the last hour and a
half. He wasn’t worried about his shop because he knew no
one was interested in buying right now anyway. But he was
worried about the students. He knew many of them and liked
most of them. They were his biggest source of income, and
despite the occasional bad apple or shoplifter, most of the students
liked him back. They tended to have a healthy respect for
anyone gruff enough to tell them to take a hike when they were acting
up or to slap them some skin when they won the big game or scored
a hot date with an even hotter girl. His brow was furrowed,
with his bushy gray eyebrows arching down, and his arms were crossed
as he leaned against one of the pillars that held up the shop-fronts
of the stripmall. He was talking to parents and students as
they congregated wherever there was some free space and most seemed
pretty stunned. Poor Sally Schmidt had been absolutely beside
herself. He hated to think about her boys, maybe still inside.
Of all the kids he knew, Harrison and Winston Schmidt were two of
the nicest. He gazed on as the swat teams re-adjusted their
had just spoke to Tommy Byrne and was headed down to the parking
lot to meet up with her little girl. Okay, she admitted to
herself, maybe she’s not so little. At eighteen, about to
graduate and go off to college, she almost a woman. Right
now, though, all she could think of was the image of her daughter
Claire as a five year old smiling at her when she received her first
Big Wheel. Now that little girl was waiting to meet her in
the parking lot. Thank God, thought Liz. Thank God,
thank God, thank you God for sparing my baby. Liz had felt
her heart stop when she heard about the shooting on the radio.
She was in the process of stuffing envelopes at a local attorney’s
office and the DJ broke into the song. He read a pre-written
statement and all motion around her stopped. Everyone held
their breath as they waited to hear names or at least a preliminary
body count. But no body count came and the collective breath
was never released. Then the phone rang and it was Claire.
Liz felt her adrenaline level soar as she spoke with her little
girl and managed to keep it together as she gathered her purse and
jacket and left. Now she was approaching the area where they
had agreed to meet. Her eyes swept over the crowd, back again
and once more before she spotted Claire. There she was, standing
with a group of friends, trying to hold onto each other as if their
lives depended on it. Liz shouted Claire’s name and Claire
turned. They ran into each others arms and Liz’s strength
disappeared. She wept like she hadn’t in years as she held
watched as Claire and Mrs. Uthoff clung to each other, bawling.
She dabbed the corners of her own eyes as she watched their reunion.
She hadn’t talked to her own mom yet because her mom was on the
East Coast giving a presentation. But she had spoken to her
dad, who lived in Florida. He had been happy to hear from
her unexpectedly and horrified when he found out why she was calling.
He had not yet heard about the shooting and he was grateful that
she had called him. Now she stood with a group of her friends,
including Claire and Kim Zurdanski, the minister’s daughter; always
something of a goody-goody, but a cool enough kid despite.
Dana said hello to Mrs. Uthoff once she and Claire had separated
and they spoke for a little bit. Dana wasn’t sure but she
thought there was only one guy. She had heard the blasts and
didn’t recognize them as gunshots. They sounded like firecrackers
to her. But once she heard the screams, some ancient survival
instinct surfaced and she knew exactly what was happening.
She ran from the cafeteria, where she had been sitting with Claire
and Kim and joined the fray of students crushing their way out of
the exit doors. She had been terrified of the situation, but
never really felt like she was ever in danger. Her panic was
the collective panic of the other students. A frightened crowd
could be even more dangerous than the shooter, and now Dana knew
why. But now she was feeling better, just a little jittery.
The fear-induced hormones were receding and she could feel her body
Eric Zurdanski arrived a few minutes after Liz Uthoff. He
was absolutely terrified because no one had seen his son, Paul.
He released Kim from his monstrous bear hug and talked to her for
a moment. She was obviously okay, not injured in any way,
and quietly crying. Kim was always the quiet one. She
had her arms wrapped around her body with her arm occasionally reaching
up to her eyes with a damp Kleenex. Paul was the boisterous
one, but a damn sweet kid who studied the faith very seriously.
Reverend Zurdanski talked briefly with Dana, Claire and Claire’s
mother, making sure they were each all right. After getting
assurances, he craned his neck to try and look above the crowd.
He was a mountain of a man at six foot six, but his height didn’t
help him. He needed to find his son. His heart was half
healed by the presence of his daughter, but it would not be whole
until he knew his son was safe and unharmed. He told Kim to
go up the hill to Tommy’s and call her mother. He gave a quick
word of blessing to Dana, Claire, and Liz and then headed off in
the direction of the police activity. Maybe they had news
shots rang out from the school. There were screams from the
crowd. Sheriff McGovern yelled into the walkie-talkie and
the swat teams moved.
* * *
stood in the boy’s bathroom on the second level of the school, staring
down the barrel of a loaded shotgun. On the ground behind
him lay Harry Schmidt, dead in a maroon puddle. He was missing
most of his face. Paul only knew it was Harry because of the
letter jacket with his name embroidered on the front and the Hard
Rock Café pin just below it. He didn’t know if Winston was
alive. He didn’t appear to be, but his wound looked to be
only in the shoulder. There were a few more bodies in the
hallway outside the bathroom.
been in the bathroom when the shooting started and heard the screams
as people went running down the hallway, which was nothing but a
shooting gallery for Randall Eugene Crisper. He had opened
up with a pump action shotgun and bodies started dropping.
That sent the crowd into a frenzy and they pushed even harder to
get out of the way of gunman. The screaming crowd of students
had trampled one poor girl, Suzie Nasient, to death. Randall
had simply stood over her lifeless body.
Paul had thought the coast was clear. He heard no more yelling,
no more gunshots, no more panic. The bathroom and hallway
were filled with a quiet that pressed upon his ears. He opened
the stall door slowly. It squeaked quietly and he cringed.
He slipped through the narrow opening he created and stepped carefully
toward the bathroom door. He passed poor Harry and Winston
as he tried to get out. It looked as though they had been
trying to sneak a couple of smokes before the next period started.
They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Paul
rounded the corner to the door and found himself face to face with
held the shotgun in both quavering hands and raised it to chest
level when Paul came into view. Paul instantly recognized
Randall, the class misfit who everyone who liked to pick on.
A skinny, small kid with glass that were now speckled with spots
of blood, he was terrifying to behold. He looked almost
as stunned as Paul felt. His eyes were wide and bloodshot
and his hair, usually parted evenly on either side of his head,
now stood up in tufts as if he had been pulling at it. The
shotgun waved in the air as Randall tried to hold it steady and
couldn’t. He recognized Paul and the muscles in his jaw relaxed
know what to do. He and Randall stood across from one another
for a tense minute before Paul finally screwed up the courage to
H-How are you?” Paul tried to sound buddy-buddy with Randall,
thinking that it might save his life. His nervous stammering,
though, gave away his fear.
didn’t answer immediately. He blinked a few times and his
eyes dropped to the ground, for a second, before he looked up and
replied, quietly, “I’m great. I’m just fuckin’ great.
Can’t you see how abso-fuckin-lutely great I am?”
sounded as desperate as he looked. Desperate and something
else Paul couldn’t quite place. Paul could feel his knees
shaking and knew he was very close to urinating despite the fact
that he had just gone. Maybe he could talk to Randall, bring
him back to some measure of sanity, sparing his own life in the
what are you doing?”
that trick fucking question?” Randall snapped.
serious. Why are you doing this?”
looked around and his wide eyes grew wider. It was as if he
suddenly realized what had truly happened and that he was responsible.
It hit him hard and tears welled up in his eyes. He turned
back to Paul.
and tired of being a loser!” he almost whispered. “I’m sick
and tired and people kicking me in the ass as I walk down the hallway,
knocking books out of my hands and shoving me into the lockers.
I’m sick of being picked on!”
was withdrawing into himself and Paul was watching it unfold.
He was trying desperately to wrap his mind around Randall’s actions
and he was failing.
this? Did you really need to do this? Why not go to
the principal or something?”
to the fucking principal!” The veins on Randall’s neck bulged
as he shouted. He was clearly agitated by this conversation
and the last thing Paul wanted to do was to agitate Randall any
more than he already seemed to be. “They didn’t do anything
for me but tell me they’d look into it. Well, now they don’t
to wonder how many other people he had shot and, maybe, killed.
wanted them to stop hazing me. I wanted to be left alone.
I wanted to be able to walk down the hallway and not hear laughter
as I passed by them. Why couldn’t they just leave me alone?”
now streaming down his face and the shotgun drooped. Paul
thought this might be the chance he needed. He could talk
Randall down and save himself in the process. It always worked
on TV, didn’t it?
I understand where you’re coming from. About being teased,
that is. I mean, come on. Look at me. A minister’s
son. You think I don’t get picked on? Oh, they’re terrible
about it sometimes.” He took a step forward to reach out to
the hurting boy. Randall’s head snapped up and he snapped
the shotgun level at Paul again. Paul tossed his hands in
the air. He didn’t know why, really. It wasn’t as though
he hand anything to hide in them. It was more symbolic to
show he was completely at this boy’s mercy.
voice was full of spite. “Oh, you think you know how I feel?
Do you? Well, you don’t! You don’t know shit about how
I feel and don’t pretend you do. You’re the minister’s son.
Yeah, people pick on you, but they don’t beat you up for it.
They don’t flush your head in a toilet because of it. But
they do that to me. They steal my clothes during gym and throw
them into the girls locker room. Then the girls laugh when
I have to go in there in a towel to get them. And do you know
why they do these things? Because I wear glasses. Because
I get good grades. Because, whenever the teacher calls on
me, I know the answer. That’s why they do it. Well,
they won’t do it anymore. I’ve taken care of that, haven’t
as Randall’s small frame started to shake. He was coming into
the full realization as to what he had done and it was rocking him.
He was sobbing and kept repeating “Haven’t I?”
suddenly what that other quality he had heard in Randall’s voice
had been: despondency. Despondency over his social torture
and his pummel-able quality that the jocks seemed to pick up on.
Jocks like Harry and Winston Schmidt, who would never haze this
kid again. Paul wanted to help this kid, this killer, who
just wanted to be left alone.
But he was
too late. Randall’s eyes suddenly lit up.
to play a game. I’m going to ask you some questions and you
are going to answer them. If you get them right, you live.
If not you die.”
was aching and he thought that he might pass out soon. Blood
was surging through his ears and his hearing became gray.
He tried reasoning once more with Randall.
asked. “Why would you want to kill me? I’ve never done
anything to you. I get picked on too, remember?”
I can’t stop.,” Randall whispered. “I’m trapped. Don’t
you see that? I’ve started something that I can never walk
away from. So I need to finish it. That starts with
you and ends with me.” His desperation hit its apex.
“But I want to know something from you first. You’re the Reverend’s
son. Surely you must know something about church beliefs and
dogmas. Did you ever come across the problem called ‘theodicy’?
Do you know what that is?”
is a potentially unanswerable question. Put simply, it says
that, one, God exists, two, God is all-powerful, and three, evil
exists. It then asks how that is possible.”
muttered softly, almost to himself. He stood silent, caught
in the stares with his gaze roughly aimed at Paul’s feet.
A minute passed and then a tired ragged breath drawn into his lungs
brought him back from his ugly reverie. He looked Paul dead
in the eyes and said, “Now, answer the question. Solve the
problem. Reconcile this issue for me.”
raised the shotgun and brought it level with Paul’s face.
Paul’s bladder could finally hold on no more. A wet stain
appeared on his jeans and spread as the urine ran down his legs.
Randall saw the stain spread and wrinkled his nose.
cautiously past the gaping muzzle at Randall. It hit him suddenly.
Randall wasn’t asking for an explanation of evil. He was asking
for—no, pleading for—an explanation of how he could have committed
this unspeakable violence. His mental and emotional capacity
was bottoming out and now needed comfort. Paul was amazed.
This smallish, tortured kid, this unlikely Starkweather, was nothing
more than a boy who needed his mommy.
a quick and quiet prayer in his mind. He took a deep breath
and chose his words carefully before speaking. Then he began.
“I don’t believe that evil exists. I know bad things happen,
but it doesn’t mean that they are evil. People do things because
they are angry or greedy or sad or psychologically screwed up.
But it doesn’t make them evil. And bad things are sometimes
good things, sometimes needed. They ultimately force the creation
of a greater good. When something bad happens, we react, we
compensate. It’s like if a woman got raped and then, because
of her experience, she formed a program to prevent the same thing
from happening to other women. You know what I mean?
The deaths of those here today will probably bring the community
closer together. People will grieve and they will mourn and
then they will make schools safer. They will work to ensure
that this never happens again and in the future, children will be
safer then they have ever been in the past. When all is said
and done, you may have actually saved lives.”
sure he was speaking. The words he chose were unthought; they
simply flowed. Fear started to fade. The things he said
made sense to him. The question was, would they talk
Randall down from the proverbial ledge.
sagged in Randall’s hands. His face softened and he almost
smiled. Paul started to crack a nervous grin himself.
They were reaching a middle ground to from which to work.
Paul reached out to Randall slowly, his palm upward, his fingers
the gun, Randall. You don’t have to do this anymore.
I understand how you feel, man. I really do. And I can
help you. I can get my father to help. He lives to help
others who need it. That’s why he became a minister.
But you have to let me have the gun. Otherwise the police
will storm in here and be all over you. So what do you say?”
was soft and his words were careful and deliberate and they were
exactly the wrong things to say.
At the mention
of the police, Randall’s eyes widened and the muscles in his face
tensed. He pushed himself away from Paul, who had moved in
very close while he spoke. Randall snapped the shotgun up
and leveled it at Paul. It hung in the air a mere foot from
Paul’s head. There could be no way for Randall to miss.
His face had twisted itself into a painful rictus of sorrow.
me! I’m evil! And despite what you say, no good will
ever come from this.”
to counter. “You’re not evil Randall. You’re just misguided
Randall screamed at him. “I am evil and there’s nothing that
can be done about it! It’s over! There’s no way I can
just walk out of here. You know it and I know it. There’s
only one way for this to end.”
A long heavy
minute passed with Randall holding Paul at gunpoint. Paul
waited for the next scene in this drama. As he stood there,
he felt a bewildering calm descend upon him. His shoulders
relaxed and his eyes, which had been wide with anticipation, narrowed
and focused. Paul felt as though, for the first time in his
life, things made sense. Standing in the boys' bathroom, opposite
a killer with a loaded shotgun aimed at him, he felt as though the
world, with all of its oddities and inexplicably random cruelties,
Randall asked quietly, “Paul, do you believe in God?”
Randall in the eyes and stated firmly, “Absolutely.”
nodded shortly and he said in a quiet, resigned voice, “Yeah, so
back on the trigger. Paul winced, waiting for pain, or noise
or even a quick entrance on the other side of life. The gun
roared. Tile behind Paul splintered as the round exploded
into the back wall of the bathroom.
his eyes. He was still staring at the now smoking barrel.
He thought that maybe he was dead. He looked behind him to
see if his body lay on the floor, headless. But there was
nothing. He looked down and felt his body whole. He
looked at Randall and knew he was still alive by the expression
of pure shock on Randall’s face. They stared at each other
for a moment in utter disbelief. Then Randall brought the
shotgun up and placed it on Paul’s chest. He pumped the shotgun,
chambering another round. Paul stood there still in utter
shock. Randall squeezed the trigger and the tile behind Paul
exploded in shards again. And yet, Paul remained standing,
breathing, very much alive.
Randall panicked. He backed away from Paul, who was still
standing in the bathroom, wondering at his lack of a gaping wound
and his continued existence. Randall pumped the gun again
and backed himself up against a wall. He started to turn the
out of his wonderment. He realized with abject horror what
Randall intended. He raced over to the boy. Randall
saw Paul coming and tried to turn the gun back around to fend him
off. He moved too slowly and he and Paul locked hands around
the shotgun, vying for control. Paul was a decent sized kid
and Randall was smaller, but Randall had a hell of a grip.
He fought for the gun like he was fighting for his life. The
struggle ended when Paul finally let go with one hand and brought
it down open into Randall’s face. With a hiss of surprise,
Randall let go off the gun and Paul threw it down the hallway.
It clattered away.
on the stairs, the sound of boots pounded upward. The swat
team stormed into the bathroom with firearms raised and started
shouting. Both Paul and Randall were brought to their knees
and cuffed. The police needed to figure out who was who in
this showdown. Randall was sobbing and begged the police to
shoot him. But even while Paul was waiting for matters to
settle, he felt the calm that had descend upon him resettle and
a fire burn in his heart. He breathed slow deliberate breaths,
filling his lungs with stale air and he smiled. He understood
now that there was a purpose to his world and a direction he had
to go in. And as he smiled at his future, he realized that
it was two thousand years later and that miracles were still happening.