Posts Tagged ‘ Jack Ketchum ’

OUR CHILDREN, OUR TEACHERS

Our Children, Our Teachers is currently on the 2018 Bram Stoker Awards® Preliminary Ballot for Superior Achievement in Long Fiction. For a limited time, I am making this novelette available for all to read, for free. I hope you enjoy, and if so, consider leaving a review on either Amazon or Goodreads (or both), because those are free to give as well. Please note, however, that this story contains course language and delicate subject matter: school shootings. Consider that your trigger warning.

But first, a little backstory. Jack Ketchum (Dallas Mayr) took a special interest in this project early on because the concept was perhaps something necessary to bring out into the open, something that might happen one day, which would be unfortunate. We wanted to collaborate on either a novelette- or novella-length work, and this story haunted us most. Unfortunately, he was unable to collaborate because of medical issues before he passed, and asked that I finish this one on my own. So kudos to you too, Jack (Sheriff Mayr in the story; that’s his voice). This one’s for you, my friend.

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“Teachers can change lives with just the right
mix of chalk and challenges.” – Joyce Meyer

“The most interesting information comes from children,
for they tell all they know and then stop.” – Mark Twain

1

SHERIFF MAYR

“We have a situation at the high school,” Sharla said to the Sheriff.

“What do you mean situation?

Sheriff Mayr looked up from his mug, his third coffee that morning, black. Every time Sharla used the word situation it meant something bad. The last was a situation at the Stagger Inn, which he always thought was a clever name for a bar. She’d radio’d him because he’d been close assisting an accident at the intersection of Feagleship and Canterbury, there mostly to direct rubberneckers to keep going, to move them along because everyone wanted to look, to see the dead kid behind the wheel, the carnage of metal; it didn’t matter much when it came to car accidents, people just wanted to have a look.

The situation at the bar ended up being a naked woman covered in broken beer bottle scratches, blood sagging off her skin, and she held the jagged neck of a Budweiser under the chin of the bartender, a burly man everyone always called Cloud because they couldn’t pronounce his last name properly; he was decked-out in tattoos and muscles that stretched his shirt, and despite his size, despite his intimidation, the bloody naked woman held the glass to his neck like a handgun, ready to pull the trigger. She could have ended Cloud’s life, but for some reason chose not to; instead she was drunk and off the street and wanted him to open the register.

Sherriff Mayr had drawn his gun, which he never liked to, pointed it at her and asked, “How much you want?” and she’d looked at him like he were the crazy one. “How much you want?” he’d repeated, and she’d said, “Seven—eight dollars. Seven or eight dollars.” He dug in his wallet, not taking his eyes off her, and held out a ten. “How about ten and you keep the change?” he asked, and her eyes changed then, her hand with the broken bottle dropped an inch, and Cloud reacted and slammed her head into the counter, snapped the woman’s arm behind her back and held her face down in a bar rag. Strange what people will do for money, even seven or eight bucks.

He’d almost shot her.

Come to find out, the woman at the bar was barely eighteen, had dropped out of high school sometime her Junior year because she had found drugs more educational. Meth, clearly, because she had looked forty instead of teenage.

She’d been a student of BHS, same as he’d been so long ago.

“You know I don’t like that word,” Sheriff Mayr said.

“Brenden High School is under lockdown,” she said.

“Again?”

He didn’t need another situation.

Times had sure changed.

In his days they’d had pot and LSD and other drugs to worry about, and the occasional wrestle match or fisticuffs between classes, sometimes a nuke drill where they’d hide under desks—as if that’d save them from anything. Nowadays schools had newer drugs, and so much hatred flying about, bomb threats, guns brought onto campus so bullied students could feel ‘safe,’ mandatory lockdowns and other such drills, random locker checks.

He’d seen bullying during his time at BHS, sure, but bullying had also changed over the years. Bullying could mean all sorts of things now: a picture, an inappropriate share, a like on something that shouldn’t be liked, a text, unnecessary segregation caused by fear.

Sheriff Mayr thought of the woman at the Stagger Inn, the dropout.

“Our education system’s failing us,” he said to Sharla, taking another sip of his coffee, bitter. “Kids, they’re not growing up right, not being brought up right—by parents, by teachers, by anyone. Something needs to change.”

He’d almost shot her, couldn’t get the half-toothless girl from the Stagger Inn out of his head and what had happened to her. What he’d almost done to her. What hadn’t happened to her. Sometime in her life she’d wandered off the path, and no one had corrected her. No one had taken the time to care. No one had been there for her.

“Should I send Everson?” Sharla asked.

“No, I’ll check it out, but ping Everson, and Johnson. Keep them close.”

Schools were supposed to call in drills.

He stood and grabbed his keys from his desk and as an afterthought he added, “And be ready to call Seattle, in case this thing turns out to be more than a situation.”

 

2

FRANKIE JONES

Death is heavy, so much heavier than life …

Frankie Jones sat under her desk and scrawled those words onto the back of her third period Chemistry binder next to peace signs and smiley faces and various stickers. BHS sux! was written there, along with School is only a slice, and a decent sketch of a dragon with sharp fangs biting into the spine of the binder.

Brenden High was on lockdown again. The first two times had been drills, one in the first semester, one in the second, the announcement had stated so through the overhead speakers in the classroom, and her teacher, Mr. Marshall, politely asking the students to set down their pencils or pens, to remain calm, and to crawl under their desks until they were cleared. He’d walked to the door and flipped the lock. He’d gone to the windows to let down the blinds. And then he’d sat at his desk, leaned back in his chair, and put up his feet until it was over. “The lockdown is now lifted,” the principal would announce and, “Please return to your daily routine. Thank you.” The drill had become routine over the years, enough so that no one cared.

“This is not a drill,” a shaky voice said this time, “Teachers, secure your rooms unt—” and then a gunshot.

Mr. Marshall took his feet off the desk and sat upright, looked to the speaker in the corner of the room, and then at Frankie and the other students. Principal Talmers was dead; the entire class, the entire school, had heard the shot; her hand apparently still pressed against the button for the microphone because of the succession of gunfire and static.

The school counselor, Frankie imagined, and the secretary …

Were any students in the office?

“We are in control now,” a teenage voice said over the intercom, a voice Frankie recognized belonged to Jessica Mosely. She and Jessica shared fourth period Algebra together, and P.E. “And this is not a drill,” she said. “Teachers, please secure your rooms.”

The overhead speakers crackled and the classroom went silent except for the drone of the air conditioner.

The entire school went silent.

Frantic faces looked to one another for support, Frankie’s classmates pulling cellphones from their pockets or from backpacks, not calling, but texting, messaging through apps, communicating through social media and by not talking.

“Everyone stay calm,” the teacher said, as he had before, but it sounded much different this time. He backed away from his desk, which was next to the window, ducked under the cover of cabinets and crouch-walked to the door, to double-check the lock.

A distant pop sent Ashley Calmers into hysterics.

Pop-pop! like firecrackers.

Mr. Marshall cringed with every gunshot and slipped onto his backside, spider-crawling to the corner of the room. “Everyone stay down,” he said after a few students started to stir out from under their desks. He stood long enough to turn out the lights and a few kids screamed.

“Quiet down,” he said, flat hands pressing down an impossible rising weight.

Any one of us could die, Frankie thought. All of us could die.

There were twenty-two students in third period Chemistry, nearly a thousand in the entire school. Jason Jacobsen pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. Benjamin Dorsen rocked on the balls of his feet, head crammed between his knees. The other Ashley, Ashley Wilhelm, said, “Is she dead?” in a whisper to Meghan Cho, who ignored her friend and stared at her phone, scrolling. “Was that Jessica?” someone said in the back of the room, maybe a girl named Laila who ran track. So many faces, and any one of them could die.

There were two empty desks today, Frankie realized. Marcos Gutierrez and a skinny kid named Aaron Smith or Smithis or something. Were they home, sick? Were they part of this?

Frankie set the binder with the scribbles aside and hugged her backpack. She didn’t have a cell phone—her guardian hated the idea of her having one—and now, in the chaos of high school lockdown, she had no means of contacting her or anyone else.

Would the school call their parents, or were all callers dead?

Mr. Marshall pulled a cell phone from his pocket and tapped the screen with uncooperative fingers, said as quietly as he could, “Yes, I’m a teacher at Brenden High School. There’s been a—yes. The school is on lockdown … Yes. As secure as we can be, but these rooms are like fishbowls and—yes. Okay. Thank you,” he said and ended the call. He addressed the class and said, “No one else needs to call 911. They’ve received seven calls and are aware of the situation.”

A few students who apparently thought to call were ending their own calls, and others made it through to their parents: “Don’t freak out but there’s a shooting at school,” Wendy Parsons said. “The principal’s been shot,” someone else said.

“I know you want to call your parents,” Mr. Marshall said to the class, his voice barely over a whisper. “But please, hang up your calls, now, put your phones on Silent, text only.”

I have to go, I can’t—

I have to text, mom. Love you too.

Cell phones buzzed about the room.

“Put your phones on Silent,” Mr. Marshall said a little louder. “Protocol is to remain quiet until we’re given the clear from the office.”

“The office is dead,” Jaime Carson said smugly; he was actually smiling.

“Everyone, shut up!” David J. said.

Frankie couldn’t remember what the J. stood for, but he was on the varsity football team and his voice carried enough authority to quiet the room to murmurs.

She watched the clock as its second hand filled the otherwise noiseless classroom with heavy ticks, for what seemed hours—for sixty seconds, and sixty seconds more.

“What are you doing?” Frankie asked Pauly Wilson.

Pauly sat to the right of her and thumb-wrestled his cell phone keyboard.

“Texting,” he said under his breath, and then, “checking Facebook and Twitter, seeing if anyone knows what’s happening.”

“There’s already a hashtag,” Jason Jacobsen said, staring at his own phone.

“Everyone quiet down,” Mr. Marshall said, but there were constant whispers.

Frankie could tell Mr. Marshall was eager to know what was happening outside his classroom, as he kept looking to the windows, his head moving back and forth like an owl to see through gaps in the drawn window shades. Everyone wanted to know what was happening.

Jason Jacobsen whispered, “#BrendenLockdown.” He looked around the room and said, “Three people in this room are tweeting about it already.”

“This is the last time I’m going to warn you,” Mr. Marshall said, but what was he going to do? There was nothing any of them could do but wait.

Jason offered his phone to Frankie, which was nice, but she shook her head no. She wanted to see, even this early on, but she also didn’t want to see. She wanted to text Jane, her guardian, to let her know she was all right, but the thought of an unknown number texting to let her know there’d been a school shooting—was perhaps still undergoing a shooting—and that she was still alive, unsettled her.

Jane, it’s me, Frankie, she imagined writing, but then what? BHS is on lockdown, but I’m ok? The school is under fire, held hostage, but I’m ok? The entire office is shot up and dead, and the shooter’s still out there, but I’m ok? What could she do? What could any parent or guardian do?

Jane would want to know, sure, but perhaps it was better she didn’t know, because that meant Frankie would need to keep her updated, and what would she do, keep borrowing Jason Jacobsen’s phone over and over again?

He nodded yes, but Frankie shook her head no.

A gunshot from as close by as the classroom next door sent the kids in that room screaming, a collective ah! Advanced English with Ms. Strand, Frankie knew. She had her fifth period, after lunch. Her last lesson had ironically covered onomatopoeia.

Had the shot come from inside the room or from someone outside wanting in, or perhaps from the room next door to that room?

Mr. Marshall stood, pushed more of that impossible weight back to the ground, which translated to everyone sit the fuck down and shut the fuck up!

In the adjacent classroom a herd of students moved from one side of the room to the other in a cacophony of howling desks and hurried footsteps, kids bunching to the corner of the room farthest from the door, and a collective sound of an entire classroom screaming.

Someone beat on the door of the adjacent classroom, from the outside. The walls, paper thin.

Three short knocks, a heavy pounding, followed by two short knocks.

A secret code.

Teenagers shrieked the way teenagers do, the way anyone would do under such circumstances. And then another gunshot, perhaps into the air, from within the classroom next door, and the room silenced. One of the windows next door shattered with a second blast, shards of glass tinkling outside.

“We are in control now,” someone said.

“What do you want?” asked Ms. Strand, not to the door, it seemed, but to a student within her third period Advanced English class.

Someone inside’s pointing a gun at her.

A thud and a painful cry, the sound of a student hitting Ms. Strand with the butt end of a gun, Frankie imagined, or a fist slamming the top of a desk.

“Go to the door,” a boy said, someone Frankie’s age.

“What the fuck are you doing, Charlie?” said a muffled voice of another student.

“Shut up!”

Frankie imagined the boy named Charlie waving a gun around the room, then pressing the barrel hard into Ms. Strand’s back, forcing her forward, toward the door.

“Knock on the door three times,” the boy said to his teacher, “and get out.”

Three quick knocks from inside the room this time, the door unlocking, the door opening.

“Out,” the boy said.

The sound of the door closing.

A braaaat of gunfire and everyone in the Mr. Marshall’s chemistry class startled, eyes wide and wet—an automatic rifle ripping open the silence.

The room next door, deadly still.

Ms. Strand … someone outside had gunned her down.

The heartbeat of the clock.

Fingers frantically typing on smartphones.

Seven long seconds.

“What are you doing?” the student from before asked, voice muffled. “What are the hell are you doing, Charlie?” Charlie had stayed in the room, it seemed, now pointing the handgun or rifle or whatever he had as a weapon at his fellow classmates, keeping them under control.

“Everyone just shut up,” Charlie said.

Frankie listened.

The entire school listened.

“Charlie O’Connell,” Ashley Calmers said a few rows back from Frankie, ever so softly, and she was right.

He was a straight-A student, on the swim team, in jazz band, a seemingly normal kid who always wore shorts and boat shoes and styled his hair to make it unstyled and messy, a boy who rode his bike to school most days and ate his lunch from an old Dukes of Hazzard lunch pail, a show his parents probably watched when they were kids, and now he was next door with a handgun or an assault rifle holding his now teacher-less room hostage.

So that made two: Jessica Mosely and Charlie O’Connell, but there had to be more. And what did they have in common? Nothing, Frankie surmised, or perhaps everything.

Jessica Mosely was a cheerleader, not the lead cheerleader but still a cheerleader, and she came from a wealthy family, wore designer clothes, kept her nails manicured, both fingers and toes, and spent more money on her hair than most girls spent on clothes. She was popular, dated jocks. She was a Senior, while Charlie was a Sophomore who took Junior and Senior classes because he was a certifiable nerd, and he was proud of that, never teased, or so it seemed. Never bullied.

She’d seen the two talking sometimes, but they didn’t hang out, weren’t friends, or ever appeared to be, so what were they doing shooting up a school? What would bring them to this? And where had they gotten the guns?

There was soft mumbling from next door, Charlie talking to the other kids in his class, explaining things, or perhaps threatening to kill them.

In her own classroom, Mr. Marshall sat in the corner, eyes closed, as if he were trying to listen over the commotion. He ran his fingers through his hair and let out a trembling breath. He stood, because what purpose did it serve being on the ground? The corner by the door was as safe as the floor.

Next to Frankie, Pauly Wilson looked pale, as if ready to puke, his skin spotted with sweat. His leg shook restlessly. “#BrendenLockdown is going viral,” he said, just loud enough to hear. Light from the screen of his phone gave his face a bluish hue.

Someone in the room tried to shush him, but he didn’t care. He wasn’t loud enough for anyone next door to hear, or anyone outside.

“They’ve already named Jessica and Charlie,” he said. “Police are—”

“I can’t believe this is happening,” Benjamin Dorsen said, still rocking, face buried. “I can’t believe this is happening. I can’t believe this is—”

“Shut up, Ben,” someone said.

“It’s already trending,” Pauly told Frankie, not looking up from his phone. “Facebook is blowing up, too. You should see what people are saying. They think it’s terrorists.”

The other Ashley delicately sobbed into her hands.

Frankie scribbled some words onto her chemistry binder, words like love and faith and hope and other single-syllable words that gave her reasons not to cry. She gave her dragon more scales, more protection, gave it longer claws.

A solid minute of silence followed, and then another, and another. There were footsteps outside, and mumbling. An entire lifetime passed in those three minutes. Everything had happened so fast, yet not, was still happening fast, yet not.

Another gunshot pop from across campus, and then two more: pop-pop.

Three knocks hammered against their own door, a heavy pounding, followed by two short knocks.

Everyone in the room looked to Mr. Marshall, who backed away a few steps. He looked around in desperation for a weapon, grabbed a stapler, set it down, grabbed a heavy glass beaker drying in the sink instead and firmly wrapped his fingers around the base, hefted it.

There was nothing else.

Pauly Wilson nudged Frankie with his phone, offering it to her.

Frankie shook her head no.

The last thing she wanted now was to look at a phone, to read about what was happening, or what had already happened, or who was sharing what, or what was trending, because none of that mattered. What mattered was the moment, now, the gunman at their door.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” Benjamin Dorsen mouthed, repeating the words over and over again. He’d wet himself and she and everyone in the room could smell it.

Shadows of feet beneath the door.

Pauly nudged Frankie again with the phone, encouraging her to take it.

Frankie shook her head and opened her mouth with her upper lip curled, saying What? without saying the word.

“Take it,” he said, and he was always so nice, always helping her in class when she needed help. He was a Junior and Frankie a Senior, and even a year behind, he was always helping her. A good kid, polite, sometimes dorky and sometimes suave and always nice and here he was, helping her again, offering his phone, smiling, his eyes pleading please?

Frankie hesitantly took the phone. Pauly had left it open on a text message he’d sent to his mother. I’m sorry is all it said. And Frankie Jones understood it was a message to her as well—I’m sorry, Frankie.

Pauly Wilson, looking sickly, unzipped his backpack and removed a silver handgun, and crawled out from under his desk and faltered for balance.

Mr. Marshall waved for him to sit, to take cover; he hadn’t seen the gun, instead held captive by the door. Three short knocks, harder this time, followed by two short knocks. The secret code, or perhaps the first half of a secret code because Pauly Wilson pointed the handgun to the ceiling and fired and all mouths in the room screamed and all eyes in the room turned to him, and Frankie thought, What the fuck, Pauly? like she’d say to the kid next door. That’s what Pauly was to Frankie the entire school year: the kid next door. Someone normal. Someone she looked up to despite the fact that he had often looked up to her.

No one said anything.

The clock pounded seconds that seemed like small eternities, like collective heartbeats of every high-schooler in third period Chemistry cut in half to an even and synchronous sixty beats per minute.

Pauly, crying, waved the gun around the room—not at anyone in particular and not even with his finger on the trigger, Frankie realized, but that didn’t matter. He had the gun and he was in control, whether he wanted to be or not.

“What in god’s name are you doing, Pauly?” Mr. Marshall asked calmly, hands at his sides as if ready to curtsy. He set the beaker on the counter without taking his eyes off Pauly, the gun pointed at him now, the end of the barrel teetering from an unsteady hand.

Frankie looked back to the phone:

I’m sorry, the screen read for a contact listed as Mom, and that was all; the other messages to his mother were either deleted or this was his first.

She tapped the screen to check for others.

There were texts from Jessica Mosely and Charlie O’Connell, and more kids. She was holding future evidence, Frankie realized, and nearly dropped the phone. She looked to Pauly and had never seen him so sad.

Why me?

He didn’t want to do this, but here he was, holding the gun, part of a student conspiracy to … to what? What were they trying to accomplish? she wondered, and Who else was involved?

“Put down the gun, Pauly.”

There were other messages, from other students, all students—times and dates, classroom numbers. There were names Frankie recognized, from nearly every grade level, boys and girls, a dozen or more: Jill Hancock, Bradley Borne, Eddie Fargis, Julia Ramirez, Michelle Baer, Jesus Florence, Demarkis Evans, Cha Xing, Michael Pearsons, and on and on … white, black, Hispanic, mixed-race; and Catholic, Muslim, Jewish; none of that mattered.

Wait for the knock and then it’s your turn, one of the earlier messages read. Follow through or shoot yourself, one read. All or nothing, one read. A better future, one read. Sacrifice is selfless love, one read.

Frankie scrolled and scrolled.

“We are in control now,” Pauly said, his voice crackling.

“What do you want?” Mr. Marshall said.

“Go to the door,” Pauly Wilson said with a little more authority. The gun was shaky, and his finger remained off the trigger, but it was still a gun pointed at another human being, at their teacher, and it was something terrifying. “Just go to the door,” he said. “Please.”

“Pauly,” Mr. Marshall said, stepping forward.

Please just go to the door,” Pauly said, sniffling.

The gun leveled, which required both hands to hold it steady. With both thumbs he pulled back the hammer—and awful click that stopped their chemistry teacher from moving closer. The hurt behind his eyes was something awful.

“I’m on your side,” Mr. Marshall said. He held up one hand, as if his palm had the power to block the bullet. “And I don’t care if you shoot me. Well I do, but I don’t think you want to shoot me, right? You’re a good kid, Pauly.” He took a step closer and said, “You have the power to stop this. We’re safe in here and you can—”

“We’re not safe in here!” Pauly said. “None of us are safe. Don’t you get it? Don’t you understand why this is happening? We’re not safe here. That’s the whole fucking point! Just, please, go to the door, knock three times, and get the hell out.”

Frankie thought of the braaaat from the assault rifle earlier. She wondered how many other students might be involved.

He was sending their teacher to his death, she knew, and everyone in the classroom knew, and Mr. Marshall knew, and as soon as he was out and the door closed, whoever was out there would open fire and move on to the next room, would knock on that door so another teacher could be executed, and then to the next—

But why?

You’re not like them, Frankie thought, but knew it was a lie. He was exactly like them. He’d conspired. He’d brought a gun to school. And now he was sending Mr. Marshall to his death.

Frankie Jones wanted to say something, but she had no words.

Pauly was a good kid, or so she’d thought, an ideal student … but she had been wrong, so very wrong. So why had he given her the phone? Was this the last of the good that wanted out?

I’m sorry, the message to his mother had read.

I’m sorry, Frankie, he was trying to tell her.

Mr. Marshall took a hesitant step forward. “It’s true,” he said, taking another step, “We’re not safe here, but we can make it safer—”

Pauly Wilson put the gun to his own head and closed his eyes, squeezing them shut, his finger on the trigger, the end of the barrel pressed hard against his temple.

“Okay I’ll go to the door,” Mr. Marshall said, blurting it out like a single word.

The most courageous word Frankie had ever heard in her life.

Mr. Marshall was what all teachers should be, what all parents—and maybe even a few students—wanted teachers to be: fearless, there for the student, there to protect the students, whatever it took, and in this case, perhaps to die.

“I’ll go to the door,” he repeated. “Put down the gun and I’ll go to the door please just put down the gun I’m going, see?”

Pauly opened his eyes and sobbed aloud, the embarrassment of crying in front of his peers long lost, and he in fact lowered the gun and again held it in front of him. He loosely pointed the revolver at his teacher, a man willing to sacrifice his own life to teach a troubled student one final lesson: sacrifice.

My life for yours, Frankie thought.

Mr. Marshall took a deep breath and stepped backward toward the door, one hand behind him, feeling for the doorknob, and when he found it his hand curled around and he closed his eyes.

“You don’t have to do this,” he said. “You have the power to stop—”

“We are in control,” Pauly said with conviction. He wiped tears from his eyes and sniffed.

“Please, just knock and let yourself out.”

“Okay,” Mr. Marshall said, and didn’t say anything more. He simply nodded and faced the fate waiting behind him, took another deep breath, knocked three times, and opened the door.

Frankie glimpsed the end of something black, an assault rifle, and watched her chemistry teacher raise his hands over his head and step into the corridor. The door closed behind him and Frankie saw a flash of black Converse shoes and white tights.
Pauly Wilson slowly stepped backward, retracing his steps, toward the far end of the room. His finger was no longer on the trigger but the gun traversed the room, back and forth, and the gun was something fierce, the barrel like an eye, and for a single moment the eye looked directly upon Frankie and stayed there, gazing upon her with its giant black pupil. She thought of Russian Roulette. She thought of Duck Duck Goose. She thought of all the times Pauly went out of his way to offer Frankie help, and how many times she thought her chemistry teacher was an asshole.

She dropped the gunman’s phone to the ground, and that’s when gunfire erupted outside and the bell rang, ending third period forever.

 

3

CHARLIE O’CONNELL

He’d finished the last of his homework before the swimming heat, although he didn’t need to: an essay about the importance of Michael Crichton, who’d recently transformed from being a writer of contemporary literature to a “literary figure” after dying in late 2008, back when Charlie was halfway through fourth grade. The focus of the essay was that Crichton had accomplished more alive than dead. Writers and artists typically died poor, like Poe and Hemingway and most of the greats, their work not going viral until death, and while his work had transcended death, he had accomplished so much more in life.

Will we be so fortunate, Charlie wondered, with what we’re about to do?

“Death will find a way,” he’d written as the final line, mimicking the famous “Life will find a way” quote. Ms. Strand would like it. She’d appreciate the effort he’d put into the essay, some of his best stuff. He’d poured everything into it—his last writing assignment. Ten pages. A-material, probably, or a B+. He’d titled the essay “Dinosaur Teeth” because of the success of Jurassic Park and Lost World, and how those teeth had stuck—even if people only knew of his work because of the movies—and because of Crichton’s novel Dragon Teeth, published nine years after he’d died.

Death will find a way to bite …

Charlie had gone to the swimming heat, a 200-meter medley, and had placed second in his final race through the water. His fastest recorded time. His coach had patted him on the back, hard, and was all smiles. “Great swim, O’Connell!” he’d said, “Great swim!”

He liked Coach Thompson, had often thought of him as a second father. He was always encouraging him to do better, no matter the outcome.

And then Charlie went home after school and took the gun.

No one will be home for hours.

His dad kept the gun safe locked, but he knew the combination, had known it for years. He and his father sometimes went target-shooting together and Charlie had gone through gun safety courses before he was even allowed to hold the gun. At first he’d been afraid of guns, handguns especially because “they were designed to kill people,” but it was now something familiar.

Charlie’s backpack opened like a mouth to swallow two boxes of ammunition.

He was kneeling next to the safe and contemplating the revolver when his cell phone buzzed in his pocket, startling his heart into a frenzy—like a hand on his shoulder.

It was a group text from Jessica Mosely: Tomorrow, 3rd period.

A series of replies quickly followed:

We’re really doing this? from Pauly Wilson; Wait for the knock before doing anything from Aaron Smith; We’re all in or none of us are in from Michelle Baer; I’m in from Eddie Fargis; I’m in from Jesus Florence; We’re all in from Julia Ramirez; Are you in, Pauly? from Cha Xing; You better be fucking in from Michael Pearsons; Pauly? from Cha again; Yeah, I’m in from Pauly; Me and Demarkis and Jill will take the office from Jessica Mosely; and I’m in and I’m in and I’m in

No one was out.

Charlie closed the safe and spun the dial after leaving a note inside for his parents to find, which explained everything, or so he thought:

‘I’m sorry’ is not always an apology, he wrote. Sometimes those two words are said to express empathy. I’m sorry for what this will do to you, to us, but I’m not sorry for what I’ve done, what so desperately needed to be done. One day you will understand. One day everyone will understand. I love you both.

The gun would trace back to his parents, he knew, back to the safe, and they’d find the letter there, which would someday be used in court—why he was so thorough in what he wrote—like an essay no one ever wanted to read.

Will Ms. Strand grade my paper after all of this is over? Charlie wondered. He supposed she would, even after what would transpire, even if he died. She’d grade his paper because that’s what teachers do. She’d give it a grade and then give it to his parents with the rest of his stuff from school: homework, art projects, binders, the contents of his locker; and they’d go through it all, searching for evidence, for reasons why.

He was a good kid, his mother would say. No, I’m not sure why he’d ever do such a thing. No, he had a part-time job, had a girlfriend, I think—Jelissa something, or Jessica, kept up his grades, A’s and B’s mostly, played the trumpet in jazz band, even. I’m not sure why he’d ever do such a thing …

Charlie brought the gun to his room, cleaned it the way his father had taught him years ago, and wrapped it within a red Linkin Park T-shirt—one of his fondest memories with dad, hanging out at a concert. With textbooks and the boxes of .38 rounds and the revolver and his impending future concealed, his backpack was a heavy weight.

Three small knocks against his bedroom door.

Wait for the knock before doing anything.

“I’m home, Charlie,” his mother said. “Want to wash up and help with dinner?”

“Sure, mom,” he said.

They made tacos, because it was Tuesday and tradition. Charlie chopped onions and tomatoes and grated cheese while his mother stirred ground beef on the stove top.

“How was the heat?”

“I placed second out of twelve.”

“Great!” she said, and after they’d set the table she put the back of her hand against his forehead. “Are you feeling okay? You look a little pale. Everything okay at school?”

Charlie’s phone vibrated in his pocket, and then vibrated again.

 

4

JESSICA MOSELY

She wore a long black coat to school, even though it was a sunny day, guitar case at her side. Jessica played bass, but left the instrument at home.

She carried the assault rifle with her, through first period Spanish and through second period Remedial Math. She’d always had a guitar at her side, so no one seemed to notice except for Jessica Mosely, who kept touching the case with her shin to make sure it was still there, kept glancing down, eyes shifty. She’d brought an assault rifle to school, a freaking AR-15, and what scared her most was that it had been so easy.

Jessica thought of the other students involved; eighteen total.

There were eighteen guns on campus. Jesus.

Yes, even Jesus was involved, Jesus Florence, who liked to go by Florence.

Me and Demarkis and Jill will take the office.

She imagined they wouldn’t show, that Demarkis and Jill would chicken-out and she’d be left alone. She could stop the fire, she knew; it all started with taking over the front office and making the announcement so that the flames could spread, one classroom at a time.
They were supposed to meet by the bike rack—three musicians preparing for a street performance in front of the drop-off lane, perhaps. Each played an instrument, which was convenient, Demarkis was the lead guitar in his own garage band and Jill the second- or third-string trombone in the school band. They were to take the office while Michael and Cha secured the gym.

The clock ticked by slowly as she stared at the math test in front of her. Everyone’s heads were down, pencils scratching, erasing, and the teacher whittling down a stack of the previous period’s tests at her desk, swiping red ink through equations. Only a few minutes remained of the class and Jessica hadn’t attempted a single problem because who gave a shit about surface area and angles and hypotenuses and basic trig? She’d written her name across the top, and in some of the white empty space wrote What’s the fucking point? Because what was the fucking point?

You better be there, Demarkis, she thought. You better be there, Jill.

When the hour-hand and the minute-hand made a perfect ninety-degree angle on the clock, the bell rang, ending second period. Everyone turned in their papers, finished or not.

Eddie’s in this class next, she thought. He’d be the one pointing a gun at Ms. Swan and the rest of the students.

“Remember to read pages 284 through 296 tonight,” Ms. Swan said over the noise of students. “Sine, cosign, and tangent. Your homework tonight is to study those pages and be ready for tomorrow’s lesson. SOH CAH TOA! Sine: Opposite over Hypotenuse. Cosign: Adjacent over Hypotenuse. Tangent: Opposite over Adjacent. SOH CAH TOA.”

There will be no lesson tomorrow.

Jessica turned in her test, upside-down like the rest, other students bumping into her guitar case, which no longer served as a guitar case. The assault rifle inside was lighter than a bass, what seemed an impossibly light weight for something so powerful, as if not there at all; but it was there, along with three fully-loaded clips. She’d fired it before, with her brother and father at the range and sometimes on camping trips deep into the woods.

She passed Eddie Fargis in the hall and he nodded and then quickly looked down.

He’s ready, Jessica knew, and looked down as well.

Her next class was P.E., but instead of changing in the locker room to play volleyball or badminton or some shit after running a few laps she walked toward the office. She glanced inside as she passed. A student was turning in some kind of note to the school secretary, but otherwise the office appeared empty, which was good. She knew Principal Talmers would be in her office, as well as the Vice, and maybe Borne, the school counselor—whose son Bradley would soon be firing into third period Physics when his time came—and they’d all be holding coffee mugs and shooting the shit, no pun intended.

Jessica stopped at the bike rack and set down the guitar case. There was a five-minute break between classes, just enough time for students to walk from classroom to classroom, stop at lockers if hurrying, and so she imagined Demarkis and Jill doing what she’d done—offloading her entire backpack so that all she carried was her “instrument.”

¿Vienes a clase?” a fellow classmate from Spanish said as he walked by.

“No,” she said. “Dentist appointment.”

“See ya, then,” he said, and she couldn’t remember his name for the life of her.

“See ya.”

The second bell rang, marking the start of third period. Neither Demarkis nor Jill were anywhere to be found. They’d left her to do this on her own.

There’s no way I can do this on my own, she thought, and a big part of her didn’t want to do any of this at all, wanted to instead forget the whole thing and go to third period Spanish. She was the catalyst, after all. She was the only one who could put a stop to this madness.

You gotta be kidding me. You gotta be—

Demarkis hurried toward her, not running, but walking long strides so as not to be caught running through the halls, as if that mattered. She thought of walking away, then, and almost did, leaving Demarkis to do this on his own because she knew he couldn’t do it on his own, just as she couldn’t, and he would flee, but then their eyes met and it was too late.

“My class is on the completely opposite side of the campus,” he said.

He was in an agriculture class, she remembered, where they grew shit and could sometimes get away with smoking pot before the teacher got there, or perhaps with the teacher. He was stoned, his pupils small dots.

Jesus, Demarkis.

“You still want to do this?”

“No,” he said, “but the hardest decisions are the ones you’re supposed to make, right? Someone famous said that shit. Where’s Jill?”

Jessica shrugged and they waited.

“Do you?”

“Do I what?” Jessica said, but she knew.

“You still want to do this.”

“Someone needs to,” she said, and she believed that. “But I need you to do something for me, when the time comes. Something I can’t do.”

And he understood; they’d talked about it the night before.

They waited another long minute for Jill, but she wasn’t showing, and that was okay. Out of the three of them, Jill was the weakest. If anyone could fuck it up, it would be Jill Hancock. Jessica wondered if she’d warn the school somehow, but Jill knew better; she was as much a part of this as anyone, whether she’d brought a gun to school or not. She just didn’t have the guts.

There was only one way in or out of the Brenden High School office, and that was through the front door, which is where both Jessica and Demarkis headed, guitar cases at their sides. They looked to each other one last time for support, or perhaps to see if either wanted out, but neither said a word as they walked in and were greeted by the school secretary.

“We’ve come to play you a song,” Demarkis said. “Gather ’round.”

 

5

DEMARKIS EVANS

“All Along the Watchtower,” Demarkis said. He was fan of Hendrix, could play a few songs and even sing along. “There must be some way out of here,” he sang, opening his guitar case.

He waited for Jessica to open her own case, and together they lifted out their weapons.

“Oh my god,” the school secretary said. “Oh my god.” She stood and put her hands up over her head and that was probably the only thing she could think of to do.

He’d brought a compact shotgun, but Jessica’d brought a goddamn assault rifle, AR-15.

He couldn’t believe they were doing this, holding up the entire school.

It started here, in this very room.

He pumped and chambered a shell.

Said the joker to the thief.”

Their lives would forever be changed—every person at this school, every child, every teacher, every parent, the entire city … perhaps nations.

“You know what’s funny about—” Principal Talmers started to say as she walked out from her office, her words cut short. Her BHS coffee mug dropped to the floor and shattered.

There’s too much confusion,” Demarkis sang, “I can’t get no relief.”

“Shut the fuck up, Demarkis,” Jessica said, pointing her rifle at the principal.

“Jessica, Demarkis, what’re you doing?” Talmers said.

“Shut the fuck up and put your hands over your head, like her,” Jessica said.

She did as she was told, and then a third person entered the room, the counselor.

“Who else is in here?” Demarkis yelled. “Anyone?”

“No one else,” Borne said.

Your son’s a part of this, Demarkis mused. How messed up is that? They’d shared third period Physics with Mr. Tormel, which he had missed for this, and moments from now the school counselor’s own son would be wreaking havoc with some kind of firearm.

“Do you have a gun?” Demarkis asked him, “At home, do you have a gun?”

“For recreational purposes, yes, I do, but I don’t see—”

“No, you don’t see, but you understand what guns can do. You understand what happens when I point this barrel at you, or her, or her, and pull this trigger.”

He moved the shotgun from person to person, finger itchy and juddering against the trigger. All he had to do was squeeze and they’d be gone, a hole blown into them the size of a dinner plate. It was all so easy, laughably easy.

“We need you to make an announcement,” Jessica said to Principal Talmers.

“Please put the guns down, there’s no need—”

“We need you to make an announcement,” she said again. “You need to put the school on lockdown, like one of our drills. You know the verbiage.”

Borne took a step forward so Demarkis did the same, and that stopped him. He was looking with interest at the weapons, perhaps trying to see if they were toys, or airsoft.

“Where’s the intercom?” he asked.

“In my office,” said the principal. “It’s in my office.”

“Everyone,” Jessica said, “slowly, step into her office. Yes, all of you.”

The secretary stepped out from behind the front desk, hands still raised, and she joined the others, and all three of them squeezed into Talmers’ office.

Demarkis looked over his shoulder because they’d both had their backs to the door, but no one was there. He thought of asking one of their hostages to lock it, but actions were already set into motion.

“Into the corner,” Jessica said. “All of you but Talmers. Put the school on lockdown and if you try anything at all you get ripped open. Got it?”

The principal nodded and sat at her desk. She hesitated and took a long breath, and then another, pressed the button for the mic and there was a ping of static over the intercom followed by.

“Tea-teachers and students of Brendon High,” she said. “The school is on lockdown. Please—” and then a pause, pleading eyes, static crackling.

Nodding, Demarkis moved the end of the barrel from her to the ceiling while Jessica aimed her rifle at the others.

“This is not a drill,” a shaky voice said this time, her voice like shards of breaking glass,

“Teachers, please secure your rooms unt—”

The blast from the shotgun was deafening in the small room. Pieces of ceiling tile rained over the principal, her hands shaking but still depressing the button for the intercom.

The entire school had heard the shot, and this was enough, but then Jessica squeezed her own trigger and sent a spray of bullets against the empty wall to her right. She brushed the principal’s hands aside and leaned over the mic.

“We are in control now,” she said over the intercom. “And this is not a drill. Teachers, please secure your rooms.”

 

6

JILL HANCOCK

The bell rang, signifying third period had started. Jill sat in a stall of the women’s restroom across from the gym. She hadn’t needed to go, but excused herself early from Algebra-2. She’d finished her test, not thinking about the equations but plodding through them, one after the other, grabbed her trombone case and left.

She had band next but hadn’t planned on playing.

Who was taking care of band practice? Julia Ramirez. Could she go through with it? She said she would, at least through text, but texts don’t carry emotion.

Jessica was waiting for her, and Demarkis.

Shit.

She opened the case and inside was her trombone, a microfiber cloth, a small plastic bottle of oil, a spit cloth, and her dad’s .357 wrapped in a lime green hand-towel.
Nickel-plated, five rounds, loaded, no safety.

I can’t do it. I just can’t do it, and it’s too late anyway.

Jill hefted the gun, unraveled the towel, stared at it for who knows how long.

Such a heavy little thing, such an oily fucking thing.

Holding the gun was like holding cancer, and so she re-wrapped it in the hand-towel and set it back down carefully. She had to get home, had to put it back before—

“Tea-teachers and students of Brendon High,” Principal Talmers’ unsteady voice blared from the school-wide intercom. “The school is on lockdown. Please—”

They’d done it without her, thank god, or so she’d thought at first.

“This is not a drill,” she continued. “Teachers, please secure your rooms unt—”

A gunshot blasted through the speakers and then popped in the distance a microsecond later, or perhaps a ricochet.

They shot her. Oh my god they shot her!

Over the intercom a burst of gunfire followed, then an echoed braaaat.

That hadn’t been in the plans.

Blood was on their hands now. Blood on all their hands.

The .357, was it traceable? Wasn’t there some sort of registered serial number? She wondered these things and knew she had to get rid of it, but how?

She called 911 and reported she was a student at Brenden High School, had heard gunshots, first one and then many, said it sounded like they came from the front office. “I think the principal’s been shot, maybe others.” She didn’t give her name because she knew they’d have a way of tracing the call anyway; it was a cell phone, tied to an account, tied to her father, like the gun—the gun what do I do with the gun oh god. She texted her mom: I’m okay, because it was only a matter of time before everyone heard what had happened, and I love you because maybe she’d never be able to say it again.

They’d search everyone on campus before all of this was over, and her hands were as bloody as the rest of them. She looked to her quivering hands and could see the blood there, as wet and vibrant as red paint.

She wiped the gun oil onto her jeans and leaned back, the top of the toilet tank moaning, and that’s where she ultimately decided to hide her father’s .357.

Another gunshot popped in the distance, and shortly after another.

It was starting, classroom by classroom; they’d start taking teachers out of the equation, one at a time.

This wasn’t part of the plan. This wasn’t part of the plan …

The sound of an assault rifle ripped from not so far away.

Jill covered her mouth with both hands and sobbed into them, screamed into them, couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. Her cell phone buzzed in her pocket, which made her scream again. They were looking for her, she knew. They’d gun her down. It wasn’t in the plan but they’d gun her down. And so she took her cell phone out of her pocket and slammed it on the bathroom floor. The phone bounced against the tile and hit hard against her chin and so she picked it up from off the floor and threw it as hard as she could against the stall, denting the stainless steel door and cracking the phone screen. She ground her heel against the broken glass.

The text messages were there, the entire conspiracy was there as digital proof, and so she picked up her broken phone and held it underwater, her fist deep in the toilet.

But the messages were everywhere, she realized, not only on her phone, but on the other students’ phones. The idea was to get caught or to die and when it came down to it she’d chosen neither path and here she was, hand in a toilet, trying to hide what could never go away.

And now I can’t even call for help, can’t text, can’t anything …

She wanted to stay in that stall forever, but they’d eventually find her there—the other students involved or the police, it didn’t matter which—and they’d find the gun and she’d still be unable to us it. In a flash of red she thought for the briefest of moments of pulling the gun from the water tank and swallowing the barrel. She retrieved the gun, dripping wet on the floor.

Jill closed her trombone case and slid her broken phone into her back pocket, made her way out of the restroom, peeking out from the door.

The first train of students were walking single-file to the gymnasium, Charlie O’Connell at the caboose and brandishing a handgun. She imagined leading from behind was much like pushing a chain from one place to another.

 

7

PAULY WILSON

He’d given his phone to Frankie Jones because he wouldn’t need it anymore, and wouldn’t have the time. With their teacher gone, Pauly was now in charge of his fellow students.

“Oh my god, Pauly! Did they just shoot him?” Ashley Calmers asked from across the room. “Did they just shoot Mr. Marshall?”

“You heard what I heard,” he said.

“We could rush you, you know,” said Jaime Carson. “Whatcha gonna do, shoot all of us? Are you going to shoot all of us, Pauly? Is that the plan? How many rounds you got?”

“No, not everyone, maybe just you,” he said and pointed the gun to shut him up.

“That would be dumb, Carson,” David Janz said. “Unless you want to volunteer.”

“So what’s the plan, then?” Wendy Parsons said.

He pointed the gun at her, and again at Jamie because he adjusted on the floor. He kept them all out front because Jamie Carson was right. They could rush him, although they probably wouldn’t. Rushing someone with a gun’s moronic.

“Yeah, what’s the plan, hashtag retard,” Jaime said.

“Shut the fuck up,” said David Janz.

“Who else is in on this?” Ashley said, the blonde one.

If you only knew.

“So you, and Jessica Mosely, and Charlie O’Connell,” Ashely said. “But who else? This is something bigger and you know everyone who’s involved.”

There are eighteen of us, one for each active class at BHS, three for the front office, two for the gym, two taking care of the teachers.

He looked to Frankie Jones because she had his phone. She knew some of the other names involved and she could tell the class if she wanted to. She was flipping through the phone, probably knew all the other names by now. A part of Pauly wanted her to know. She was always sweet, always nice to him. Out of anyone, she deserved to know.

I’m sorry, Frankie.

Their eyes met for a single heartbeat.

“We wait,” Pauly said. “Three minutes we wait.”

“Wait for what?” Jaime asked. “For what?

“I swear to god, Carson,” David said.

Pauly smiled half a smile. David Janz was one of the good kids. He was a big dude, one of the football jocks who wore nothing but varsity jackets year round and kept his hair styled like a bicycle helmet, but he’d always treated everyone with respect and stuck up for the little guys, for guys like Pauly. And if his father weren’t the District Attorney, he may have been invited instead of Jill Hancock, who Pauly knew would flake. Jessica had wanted Jill with her and Demarkis at the office, so she could watch over her.

Frankie Jones would have been a better choice, but Frankie’s dad—or foster parent or whatever—was on probation, or so it was rumored. She wouldn’t have had access to a gun.

Pauly watched the clock, the only sound in the room for a while.

Three minutes.

“All right,” he said. “Everyone up.”

“Fuck you,” Jaime Carson said, but he stood anyway.

The entire class obeyed because Pauly had the gun and guns spoke louder than words ever could. Mr. Marshall was no longer their teacher; Pauly’s gun was their teacher.

“Everyone outside,” Pauly said, “single file, to the gym.”

This created a collective uneasiness among the students.

Frankie Jones went first, parting the crowd on her way to the door.

She knew something the others didn’t, and this made Pauly smile.

The door opened to a white rectangle of bright morning light, and the black silhouette of a young woman with an assault rifle stepped out of the way to let them pass.

 

6

JILL HANCOCK

Jill dried off the .357 as best she could with the lime green hand-towel and kept the gun at her side as she exited the women’s restroom, the trombone case at her side, now as heavy as a casket. She could have left it behind, but it was part of her now, like the gun was an extension of her arm.

She waited for a seventh procession of students to pass, Mr. Woodbury’s third period Biology class —mostly Seniors but a few Sophomores from what she could tell because Aaron Smith was the last in line. He was leading the group like the Pied Piper, only in reverse, pushing his hostages toward the gym with his magical flute, an instrument capable of playing notes no one wanted to hear. Her friend Leslie Kroner was in front of him with the gun to her back. The two of them were a year apart.

Jill had recognized the pattern, or at least the breaks between processions, and after the fifth line of students she’d seen go from classroom to gym, she decided to make a run for it.

She’d seen the assault rifles, hadn’t expected that. She’d imagined much earlier on—when they had first started meeting in secret—that everyone would bring either handguns or hunting rifles, but there were at least three who’d brought assault rifles, maybe four from the sounds she had heard throughout the morning.

As soon as the seventh procession entered the gym and the doors closed, she booked it across the foyer. Cha Xing guarded the doors, and pointed at her with his finger, but he pointed for no one; he was alone and looking confused. And Jill Hanock was alone, running for her life.

Jessica and Demarkis should have already been inside the gym with the others, but they could be anywhere because the plan had gone to shit. She’d heard their weapons. She knew what they’d done to the principal and to the vice principal and the counselor and the secretary and whoever else had been in the office when all of this had started. She now knew what they were capable of doing, so she held the .357 in front of her, the barrel pointing the way. She’d shoot anyone who tried to stop her, despite the trombone case smacking against her knee.

She ran until her sides hurt, until it felt like she’d swallowed tacks, and she ran through the school parking lot, toward the red and blue lights, toward safety. Until she was shot down.

 

5

DEMARKIS EVANS

“That sounded like it came from the parking lot,” he said to no one in particular, or perhaps he’d said it to himself because no one answered. They were finally out of the office and on their way. “Peoples, peoples, peoples,” he sang. “You know what it means to be left alone. Peoples, peoples, peoples …”

 

4

JESSICA MOSELY

“I swear to whatever gods you believe in that if you don’t stop singing I’m going to lay you out right here on the floor.”

“You not a Hendrix fan?”

“I don’t even know who the fuck that is.”

“I believe in two gods: Jimi, and Allah.”

“Whatever, just stop singing.”

“Where’s the V.P.?” Demarkis asked the room.

“He’s on vacation,” said Borne.

Truth or lie, it didn’t much matter at this point, but he was the school counselor, so was he even capable of lying to a student? She supposed he lied all the time to get the truth out of kids. She’d met with him once, could tell he didn’t really give a shit.

We don’t have time for this, she thought. We need to be moving faster than this. How soon until the cops get here? Someone had to have surely called it in by now.

Brenden was a small city and didn’t have a lot of police force, but Seattle wasn’t so far away and they were probably already headed to the high school, the Sheriff’s office in Brenden probably waiting for reinforcements to arrive before even attempting intervention.

SWAT. Would they call in SWAT?

“What’s standard protocol,” Jessica asked the principal, nudging her back with the barrel as they walked toward the gym. “What should we expect?”

“A whole world of hate,” she said. “You bring a gun to school, or even talk about bringing a gun to school, it’s one thing. A felony, for starters. Standard school lockdown, like the three of you initiated. The Sheriff’s office dispatches everyone they’ve got. School safety is taken seriously.”

“Not seriously enough,” Demarkis said, but she ignored him.

“You bring an assault rifle to school, it’s another thing entirely, but honestly I don’t know what that thing is because I’ve never been through anything like this before. Now, you fire a gun on campus, and you’re talking a world of hate.”

“What do you know ’bout hate?” Demarkis said, a rhetorical question.

“‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’” the principal said.

“Where’d you pull that shit from, Gandhi?”

“Martin Luther King, Jr.”

“La-di-dah. I get it. You’re white. I’m black. You think this is a race thing and trying to blend the colors between us to get through to me. You see this gun I’m pointing at the back of Borne’s head? He’s blacker than I am. If you think this has anything to do with race you need to wake the fuck up, Talmers. You got that?”

“What I’m trying to say is that whatever you’re attempting to accomplish with this violence, it is not going to work. You’re only going to be met by more violence. They see you pointing a gun at another living soul and they’ll gun you down where you stand.”

“MLK was a man who spoke opposites, sure,” Demarkis said. “I get that.”

“And Malcolm X,” Jessica said, “is noted for saying, ‘You can’t hate the roots of a tree and not hate the tree.’ So fucking what.”

“They will shoot you,” Borne said.

“You best believe we’re all well past that,” Demarkis said.

“Shut up, Demarkis,” Jessica said. “Seriously.”

“We’re playing our own game of opposites,” he said. “I’ll sing some white music for you, help you understand: ‘Talkin’ bout a rev-o-lu-tion.”

“Shut up, Demarkis.”

You better run, run, run, run—

The pop of another shot made everyone duck.

“All right, all right,” Demarkis said and they were at the gym.

Cha Xing stood outside the door. “Michael’s at the other door in back, and the others are locked. Janitor’s inside.”

This is where we make our stand.

 

3

CHARLIE O’CONNELL

Charlie pushed his chain of students toward the gym, the .38 heavier. Sirens warbled in the distance, but he’d read enough about school shootings to know they still had plenty of time. Authorities would keep their distance, they’d set a perimeter, they’d create and collapse choking points, they’d wait for more and more backup, and with a situation so out of control, local police would call in FBI or SWAT to take over because they were more qualified to handle hostage negotiations. That’s all this really was when you broke it down: a negotiation.

They had created their own choking point—the school gymnasium—and besides the windows up near the roof, the only way in or out of the building was by means of the north and south entrances, or exits, depending on perspective.

Gunshots continued throughout third period, and almost into fourth, until every student at BHS was force-migrated from classroom to gym. Every three or four minutes, sometimes as long as five, a new pop made the students cringe, followed shortly thereafter by the racket of automatic fire. It was an assembly of sorts, a great gathering of students.

The bleachers within the gym had been pulled out from the wall and filled, classroom by classroom, and the curtains drawn closed on the stage, as if every student were there to watch a school play. Jessica Mosely was front and center, and Demarkis Evans, and Bradley Borne—the counselor’s son—and Eddie Fargis, and others. Soon they would all be here, all eighteen.

This is where they’d handle their negotiations.

More distant sirens.

A fire truck.

An ambulance.

More sirens.

 

2

FRANKIE JONES

She was the first out of the classroom and expected blood, lots of blood. After Pauly forced Mr. Marshall out the door, the entire class had heard the assault rifle, but Mr. Marshall’s body was nowhere to be found, and no blood waited in the hallway. The shots had been real, though. Frankie smelled gunpowder and bullet holes had stabbed the ceiling, casings scattered about.

Frankie found herself staring into the eyes of a boy she didn’t recognize, although he wore a letterman jacket adorned with track and field and soccer patches. He held what Frankie recognized was an AR-15, probably some kind of home-built kit. He didn’t seem to mind that Frankie was holding a phone, in fact pointing it at him, as if she were going to take his picture—Pauly Wilson’s phone, one of the gunmen—and she found that odd. Pauly hadn’t seemed concerned about phones at all. She’d watched others in class take his picture, quickly looking down at their devices, uploading perhaps to Facebook or Twitter or elsewhere.

How many others were doing the same in other classrooms? How many students were involved in all this? How many names and faces had been made public?

She imagined this was probably the point.

They wanted to be known.

“Head to the gym,” the boy said, his weapon lazily pointed to the ground.

Frankie could rush him, try to take the gun, but then what? The other students would either help or back away. She imagined they’d back away. She’d back away, given the chance. It would take only a moment for things to get ugly, for kids to die. She and her classmates were walking a straight line on the edge of a razor blade, as she’d read once.

“Single file,” the boy said.

Would Jaime Carson try something? She hoped not; out of everyone in third period Chemistry he’d be the one stupid enough to go for the gun. Probably not, she thought, or David J. would talk him out of it, was probably talking him out of it right now.

Frankie looked over her shoulder and saw other kids doing the same, some taking pictures, some texting, and the other Ashley, Ashley Wilhelm, was even videoing the procession from the middle of the line, panning the camera from the front to the back, whispering into her phone. The entire world probably knew what was happening at Brenden High School, the event documented from within by student hostages, blasted across the internet via shares and likes and retweets from both students and their parents, spreading various versions of what was taking place at the school. Who had been shot. Who had died. Who was involved.

Whatever the outcome, lives would be changed forever.

The cell phone Frankie held was mostly useless because it had auto-locked and required a 4-digit passcode to use the apps. She could make an emergency call, and use the camera if she swiped, but what was the point?

Pauly led from the back of the line and had Jaime right in front of him, gun to his back, and Frankie could tell Jaime was making snarky comments over his shoulder, taunting the boy with the gun. But Pauly was a different person now; he’d changed sometime during third period Chemistry.

Frankie kept her eyes forward, mostly, casting glances at the boy at her side with the assault rifle, which she kept hoping was nothing more than an airsoft gun. It was the real thing, she knew. Those were cartridges peeking out from the spare clips strapped to his cargo pants. The weapon wasn’t plastic, but oily and metal and frightening.

They walked a short distance to the gym, where Cha Xing, a Senior student currently in the running for Valedictorian, waited at the doors to let them in. He held a bolt-action hunting rifle with a scope, the weapon looped around his neck with a shoulder strap.

They’re all good kids.

Cha let the rifle swing to his side and unlocked the rightmost door with a key hiding within a heavy wreath of similar keys. She remembered seeing a set—perhaps the same—attached to the janitor’s belt loops.

Where’s the rest of the faculty? Frankie wondered, and as the doors opened, like the gates to some other world, she saw them.

In the direct center of the basketball court was a gathering of black chairs, forty of them, laid out eight-by-five. Principal Talmers was there, in the front row, and the school counselor, Borne, and a lady Frankie recognized from the office, as well as the janitor and a few familiar faces from around campus. Mr. Marshall was there, and Ms. Strand.

Still alive.

The school faculty was being gathered, one by one, in the middle of the gymnasium, with students starting to fill the bleachers on either side, class by class, like some kind of assembly.

Ms. Strand’s Advanced English class had been the first, and Mr. Marshall’s Chemistry class the second, and there would be more, Frankie knew.

They were all to be taken to the gymnasium, according to the text messages she’d seen on Pauly’s phone. Taken alive.

Teachers and the other faculty appeared shaken, but were otherwise unharmed; each sat reverently, waiting, hands tied behind their backs and to their chairs with zip-ties, and bandannas or dark material wrapped around their heads to cover their mouths.

Frankie and her fellow students were guided to the bleachers, where they were to sit and await further instruction. The two groups of students had bunched together, most whispering and pointing, and those with phones were glued to phones, sharing screens, heads huddled.

Jessica Mosely stood on stage next to Demarkis Evans, who stood next to Charlie O’Connell, and after Frankie’s class had been seated, Pauly Wilson joined them in front of closed curtains—an assault rifle, a shotgun, and two revolvers between the four of them.

Within the next few minutes another group of kids entered, the same boy in the letterman jacket directing students inside to sit next to Frankie’s class. It was Ms. Shield’s World History class, and at gunpoint she reluctantly sat next to Mr. Marshall and was bound and gagged like the others. The girl with the gun was Shari Hunter, who then went to the stage.

The pattern continued until the bell rang, a horrible sound that put everyone in the gymnasium at unease.

Before the bell announcing fourth period, the last of the school had been gathered. Cha Xing opened the door one last time at the front of the building, and Michael Pearsons did the same at the back; each closed and locked the door they were guarding and stood inside to block the exits. Most of the chairs for the faculty were filled, and the bleachers were packed, the room a soft roar of chatter. Ten students wielding firearms of various kinds had lined up on stage, and with two at the doors and one with the faculty and two designated for each side of bleachers, this made seventeen.

It takes three to make a conspiracy, but what kind of trouble could the collective minds of so many students make?

Frankie recognized most of their faces, had seen most of their names listed on Pauly’s phone before the screen had locked. The only thing they had in common, Frankie speculated, was that they had nothing in common.

This had nothing to do with race, nor religion. This was something—

The school bell rang and the room erupted in gunfire.

Braaaat! Braaaaaaaat!

Jessica Mosely unloaded her weapon into the ceiling, the florescent bulbs shattering, and after a few screams and tinkling glass, the room turned silent, smelled like gunpowder.

A helicopter thump-thump-thumped in the distance, drawing nearer. She reloaded her rifle with a loud snap. Everyone in the building had hunkered down, arms now slowly peeling away, heads pointed toward Jessica on stage.

She’d gotten everyone’s attention.

This is where the real madness begins, Frankie told herself.

Sirens.

Squealing tires.

Car doors.

Not even an hour had passed since all this had started and already the gym was surrounded by law enforcement or whoever handled school shootings, enough so that even in daylight strobes of blue and red permeated between the doors and the windows closest to the ceiling high above the bleachers. She imagined footsteps on the rooftop, like gymnasium spelunkers.

They waited for what seemed an hour or more, but was probably only minutes. They were waiting for a crowd, Frankie knew, as this was a hostage situation in which the entire school would take part.

It was all part of their conspired plan, watched in real-time all over the world.

Frankie thought Jessica Mosely was going to say something, but she nodded to Demarkis—sharing something secret with him—and headed backstage where there surely had to be another entrance/exit. Jessica was in Drama and often performed on this stage, so she probably knew it well. She returned soon after with a megaphone, which she handed to not Demarkis, as Frankie thought she would, but to Charlie O’Connell.

Charlie’s voice carried over the gym, “Welcome, Brenden High!”

There was no applause, only murmurs.

“Teachers, students, and the rest of the faculty: we want you to know that, first and foremost, you are safe, and no harm will come to you, unless you intervene. I want everyone with a phone recording this. I want every single one of you taking pictures and taking video and posting everywhere you can. Live stream if possible. Show us those phones.”

Close to a thousand students had gathered in the gymnasium, what looked to be about half holding screens in front of them. One of the gunmen took video of his own from the stage: broadcasting—to who-knows-where—a line of students with guns.

The events at Brenden High School spreading, spreading, spreading …

Charlie continued, “By now the school is surrounded by local police, the Sheriff’s office, and SWAT will probably be here shortly. They’re most likely busy keeping news crews at bay, which is one of our demands—to allow them passage, to not prohibit but permit them to report our message.”

“What’s your fucking message?” someone on the opposite side of the gym said.

There were a few laughs.

Jessica handed her assault rifle to the girl next to her and stepped forward. Frankie again thought she’d say something, but she stared at Principal Talmers and then looked down at her feet, hands at her side. She was crying, mascara running. She was there to share a different kind of message with the world.

Demarkis Evans pumped his shotgun, pointed the barrel at the back of her head. He clenched his teeth in a painful grimace, looked to the floor, to Jessica, back to the floor again, blinking through tears of his own, and pulled the trigger.

What remained of Jessica Mosely crumpled to the ground.

The gymnasium erupted in a series of screams.

Some of the teachers attempted to stand, but seats came with them because they were bound. The armed students guarding the rows of chairs sat them back down.

The entire school had been taken hostage, but Jessica was first blood.

They haven’t killed anyone until now, Frankie realized. She could see it on the faces of everyone on stage. They had all made a pact of some kind, had known this would transpire, in the end, but there was so much hurt on those faces now that she hadn’t seen before.

They’d all gone into this willing to die, willing to sacrifice, and now, after seeing death take Jessica so brutally, they were still willing.

Frankie thought of the text messages she’d seen on Pauly’s phone.

The only way forward is through, one had read. Follow through or shoot yourself, one had read. All or nothing, one had read. A better future, one had read. Sacrifice is selfless love, one had read.

The image of Jessica falling looped in her mind.

They’re doing this for the school, for the teachers, for the sake of future students.

“Settle down,” Charlie said, his voice unsteady, “settle down, everyone” and the room eventually settled after ten more ticks of forever and everyone took their seats. As soon as the room was quiet, he spoke through the megaphone, his voice cracking: “Our message is simple: sacrifice,” and he put his own gun against his temple, pulled back the hammer.

Others on the stage did the same.

Frankie thought of Mr. Marshall leaving the classroom willingly after seeing one of his students holding a gun to his head.

My life for yours.

Demarkis pumped the small shotgun and placed the barrel under his chin, his eyes still on Jessica, at what he’d done to her.

They were all planning to die today. I can see it in their eyes, I can see it in all of them, but what is their message?

Tears in his eyes, Pauly Wilson held a gun to his head for the second time that day.

“There’s a quote in Mr. Johnson’s room,” Charlie said, “from Henry Adams that reads, ‘A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.’ We are all teachers, all of us.” He addressed the teachers of BHS, saying, “You have taught us the importance of education. You have taught us the importance of teachers. You have taught us the importance of ourselves. And most important, you have taught us the importance of our futures, and taught us what we need to do in order to ensure we have futures.”

Demarkis held out his hand for the megaphone.

Charlie gave it to him.

“We will sacrifice ourselves,” he said, “one at a time, until our demands are met.” He eyed Jessica’s body, and then the ceiling, addressing his god. “I will be the next,” he said, and then set down his shotgun for a moment and pulled a slip of paper from his pocket.

She and Demarkis were the best of friends, and she’d entrusted in him to take her life because she couldn’t do it. She was a hardcore Catholic and couldn’t do it.

The look she’d given him, just before …

Is suicide still suicide if someone does it for you?

Demarkis read from the list of demands their group had conspired to write, each like a shotgun blast in the quiet room, each dropping the jaws of teachers and students alike, to be later posted in a digital world for all to see:

“1. All teachers shall receive 10% salary increases, effective immediately.

“2. All teachers shall have access to funds to use for classroom supplies throughout the school year. This amount shall not fall below $500 per month, per classroom, to be re-evaluated quarterly for an increase by the school board. Unused funds shall be redistributed to the school for improvements and upkeep.

“3. All teachers shall undergo annual performance evaluations, a combined score derived from surveys of students, parents, fellow teachers, and school faculty, with each demographic weighed at 25% of the overall score so as not to favor any particular demographic.

“4. All teachers shall receive 10% salary increases annually following positive evaluations, no changes in salary following neutral evaluations, and 10% salary decreases following negative evaluations, for the duration of their teaching career.

“5. After three consecutive years of negative evaluation, any such teacher shall be terminated immediately.

“6. After three consecutive years of neutral evaluation, only then shall teachers be eligible for termination, to be determined by the school board.

“7. After the first three consecutive years of positive evaluation, all teachers currently employed shall be reimbursed for college tuition incurred for their own education to become teachers, tax free, adjusted for inflation, to be paid within three months of their submitted reimbursement request; under these same conditions, all teachers currently employed with existing college tuition shall have such debt waived, and shall be reimbursed, tax free, in the amount they have paid thus far for their own education to become teachers.

“8. All students undergoing education to become teachers shall have college tuition waived until at least three years after they start teaching, at which time any such debt shall be waived after three consecutive years of positive evaluation; under these same circumstances, any teacher with neutral evaluations or lower during their first three years of teaching shall be eligible for termination, and shall start paying tuition for their failed education to become teachers.

“9. All teachers shall pay into Social Security and State Disability Insurance, to be accessed at their respective times of need, and shall continue to pay Federal and State taxes required by the government.

“10. All teachers shall receive free and full health coverage, including dental and vision.

“11. All teachers shall be eligible for retirement at the age of sixty-five, or after thirty consecutive years of teaching with neutral evaluations or higher, whichever happens first.

“12. Retired teachers shall receive free and full health coverage for the duration of their retirement.

“13. Retired teachers shall be paid 75% of their income, at the time of retirement, for the duration of their retirement, adjusted annually for inflation.

“14. Retired teachers shall have the option of acting as substitutes …”

The list went on, comprehensively.

Select students of Brenden High were making a final stand, in hopes of their demands going viral, in hopes of creating a better education system, in hopes of ensuring the role of ‘teacher’ continued, and the only way left to accomplish such an impossible feat—or so they believed—was to take their own lives as a means of sacrifice, to make a point, to ruin not only their own lives, but to scar the lives of the very teachers they were trying to protect, and scarring fellow students and everyone immediately affected, scarring their parents …

The death of a child carried so much weight.

Who could ever hold such a thing?

School shootings were becoming more frequent, perhaps addictive, even. Would this catch on? Would more schools become addicts and make a stand?

No one wants to be a teacher, Frankie mused.

Teachers are underpaid, teachers are underappreciated, yet teachers are perhaps the most important people on the planet, in charge of shaping the future …

“We are the children of the future,” Demarkis said, as if reading her thoughts, “and every hour, on the hour, one of us will take a life, one of our own, until these demands are met. We want these demands, which are not so impossible, assured to us in writing by the Department of Education, and signed by the President of the United States.” He looked to his watch. “You have forty-three minutes and twelve seconds to respond before you lose the life of another child.”

Jessica Mosely’s blood held his attention as he handed over the megaphone to the next in line, Charlie O’Connell, and once again placed the barrel of the shotgun under his chin.

They were all willing to go through with this to the very end.

The only way forward is through.

Frankie thought of teaching, wondered if she could do it.

 

1

SHERIFF MAYR

Sheriff Mayr had pinged Sharla as soon as he’d gotten there, told her to call Everson, and Johnson, to call everyone, to call the entire damn Seattle Police Department and to get them here quick.

He’d heard the shots as soon as he’d pulled into the school parking lot, the metallic rattlesnake of automatic fire, the pop-pop-pop of handguns of various caliber.

He’d watched a mixed race of students leading Principal Talmers and two other staff from the front office and down the hall, hands over their heads, the boy holding a small shotgun to their backs, the girl holding an AR-15 at her side like a guitar, and at first he’d thought they were toys. He’d opened his door and had drawn his gun, and he thought again of the girl at the Stagger Inn he’d almost shot. What was he going to do? Shoot them in the back? Call out, “Hey!” and expect them to turn around and hand over their firearms peacefully, like children, toys or not?

No, he’d seen the look in their eyes, even from afar, had seen their determination, and also the fear in the adults with their hands held high, and he’d heard the distant pops of other guns on campus, the distant screams. There were others involved, he understood. So many others. This was much more than a boy and a girl bringing guns to school, and so he’d called it in. This was a hostage situation. A complete school takeover. The beginning of another fucking Columbine, or Red Lake, another goddamn Sandy Hook, and here he was in the middle of it.

“We have a situation at the high school,” Sharla had said.

A situation.

Everson and Johnson got there around the same time, sirens and lights off, as directed, and they’d pulled off the street and out of view, as directed. And the three of them had waited for more backup, two other cars, before they did anything. They reported what they saw, the five of them—the entire Brenden task force—talking into the radios at their shoulders and relaying to Sharla back at the station, who relayed to Seattle, who called in SWAT. They were to not do anything but reconnaissance from a distance, a safe distance, to remain out of sight as best as they could, to wait for instruction, to wait for the cavalry.

They watched as a processions of students were led at gunpoint out of classrooms and down halls and across foyers and to the gym. The entire damn school gathering into the gymnasium, the entire school held hostage.

And they counted gunshots and counted guns. Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen.

They took inventory of the weaponry they were up against. A damn war zone.

So many students off the path.

Something needs to change, he kept telling himself. This can’t keep happening, not to the children, not to anyone.

It was Sheriff Mayr who shot her, the girl running toward them, silver handgun glistening in the morning sunlight in one hand, something large and black held at her side in the other. She’d pointed the gun at all five of them, but he was the one who’d finally squeezed the trigger, Mayr shouting, “Hold your fire, hold your fire” to the others, like a mantra, but the others wanted to shoot and he couldn’t let them do that because she was just a girl, a misled girl who needed guidance. But the girl kept running at them through the parking lot.

He held his Glock with both hands, pointing it at the bulk of her mass like he’d been taught to do back at the academy. “An instrument,” he said to no one in general, whether referring to the case at her side or her place in all of this, he wasn’t sure. The black case took shape, bouncing off her leg, but it was her gun that held him so captivated, had him thinking of the girl at the Stagger Inn—the student the world had failed to keep a student.

“Put down your weapon,” he yelled. “Drop your weapon!”

But she ran at them, frantically.

The other officers stirred, and in his peripheral vision guns were drawn, like his, taking aim, about to fire at the child pointing a gun back at them, at each of them.

In the distance a gun fired and Sheriff Mayr thought it was the girl, firing her weapon, and so he fired and she fell, back at first, thrown by the impact, and then she fell forward, face-first, her feet tangling in a mess of sneakers and instrument case, and she fell hard, her head cracking against the tire block in an empty parking lot stall, and after it was over he ran to her, even as her gun slid across the asphalt and past him to the others.

She was just a girl, no older than sixteen, young enough to still want her hair in pigtails, to wear mismatched socks on purpose. Not yet a woman, even.

Sheriff Mayr rolled her over, onto her back, and her eyes fluttered.

“Stay awake,” he said, inspecting her.

The girl’s shoulder was cavernous with red, the bullet still in there, buried in shoulder. She’d fallen hard against the block, her forehead split open and pulsing. He held his hand there and told her she’d be alright. She’d be okay. She’d live through this. And with his free hand he called in the ambulance to hurry up and get there already as sirens wailed.

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If you would rather have a more permanent copy, this novelette is also available as an eBook for $1.95, and in trade paperback for $6.95. Anyway, thanks for reading, if you’ve made it this far!

Support Independent Writers / Editors / Publishers

If you feel like making a donation to Written Backwards (even just a dollar), know that your money will be going to a good cause: helping an independent writer, editor, and publisher survive in this cruel world.

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CHIRAL M4D!

The fourth volume in the critically-acclaimed and ever-evolving Chiral Mad Series is finally here, and quite different than its predecessors. Available now!

$34.95 / hardback
$19.95 / trade paperback
$9.95 / eBook

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Chiral Mad 4: An Anthology of Collaborations includes 4 novella, 4 novelettes, 4 short stories, and 4 graphic adaptations. 424 pages! But here’s the catch: Every single story in this anthology is a collaboration. Bram Stoker Award winners Michael Bailey and Lucy A. Snyder even co-edited the anthology to bring you an incredibly diverse and entirely collaborative dark fiction experience, including a co-introduction by Gary A. Braunbeck and Janet Harriett, and a few other surprises.

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The original Chiral Mad was meant to be an only child, and featured mostly short fiction, a few novelettes, and an introduction by Thomas F. Monteleone. The book was a charity project, and raised over $5,000 for Down syndrome awareness ($3,000 of that going to the Down Syndrome Information Alliance). But soon after publication, there was already high demand for a Chiral Mad 2. The second volume contained a few novellas, and an introduction by the book itself. And then Gary A. Braunbeck went and won himself a Bram Stoker Award for his long fiction piece “The Great Pity,” sparking even higher demand for a Chiral Mad 3. Always evolving, the third volume included poetry, illustrations throughout by Glenn Chadbourne, and an introduction by Chuck Palahniuk. And for the first time, the series was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in an Anthology, with Scott Edelman’s “That Perilous Stuff” nominated for Long Fiction, and Hal Bodner’s “A Rift in Reflection” nominated for Short Fiction, thus sparking an insane amount of demand for a Chiral Mad 4.

And so again, the series evolved.

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The idea for collaborations originated during a bad time for both the horror and science fiction writing communities. Everyone pointing fingers, not really getting along. Everyone seemingly mad at each other and unfriending each other and taking jabs whenever possible. Chiral Mad, perhaps it could help bring people together …

Chiral Mad 4, you want it to happen? Then fucking start holding hands and start singing “Kumbaya” and get along already. Something like that. And since the series is one to ever-evolve, more insane ideas took shape. Why not make the entire anthology a collaborative effort? Why not havea co-editor? And since it’s #4 in the series, why not have 4 different forms of storytelling, with 4 collaborations of each? Why not include graphic adaptations this time, along with novellas, novelettes, and short stories? Why not have a co-introduction? Every single part of the book collaborative … why not?

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The book, it’s huge in both scope and in physical form. 52 pages of graphic adaptations. Something like 120,000 words of new fiction. It’s a tome. So, what can you expect with the fourth (and perhaps final) volume of Chiral Mad? A little bigger price tag, unfortunately: $19.95 for the trade paperback, $9.95 for the eBook, and at some point there will be a hardback edition available for $29.95. It’s worth it. That much is promised. The full insanity? Here’s the final Table of Contents:

“Somewhere Between the Mundane and the Miraculous” (introduction) – Gary A. Braunbeck & Janet Harriett

[ part one ]

“How We Broke” – Bracken MacLeod & Paul Michael Anderson
“Fade to Null” – Brian Keene & Daniele Serra
“Asperitas” – Kristopher Triana & Chad Stroup
“Home and Hope Both Sound a Little Bit Like ‘Hunger'” – Seanan McGuire & Jennifer Brozek
“Golden Sun” – Richard Thomas, Kristi DeMeester, Damien Angelica Walters & Michael Wehunt
“The Substance of Belief” – Elizabeth Massie & Marge Simon
“The Ghost of the Bayou Piténn” – James Chambers, Jason Whitley & Christopher Mills
“The Long and the Short of It” – Erinn L. Kemper & F. Paul Wilson

[ part two ]

“The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” – Sarah Monette & Elizabeth Bear
“Sudden Sanctuary” – Glen Krisch, Orion Zangara & Matt Stockwell
“Peregrination” – Chesya Burke & LH Moore
“Ghost Drawl” – Erik T. Johnson & J. Daniel Stone
“Detritus Girl” – P. Gardner Goldsmith & Valerie Marcley
“Wolf at the Door” – Anthony R. Cardno & Maurice Broaddus
“Firedance” – Jack Ketchum & Glenn Chadbourne
“In Her Flightless Wings, a Fire” – Emily B. Cataneo & Gwendolyn Kiste

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Quite the line-up, no? And, as you can see from the above image, Chiral Mad 4 includes a final collaboration with long-time friend Dallas Mayr / Jack Ketchum. The adaptation of “Firedance” is worth the price of admission alone, and runs 26 pages. Dallas, Glenn and yours truly worked our fingers to the bones to bring you something special, something to remember him by.

So, once again, crack the spine, dig your claws deep into these pages, sit back, and enjoy a new kind of chirality.

OUR CHILDREN, OUR TEACHERS

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2017 was not the greatest of years, so Written Backwards is starting off 2018 by publishing a few pocket-sized paperbacks by Michael Bailey.

Our Children, Our Teachers is a standalone novelette dedicated to (and written for) Jack Ketchum, and is available (as of January 1st) to purchase on Amazon.com for only $5.95. Either use the money to buy some kind of designer vente coffee, or buy the book. One will stay with you; the other will pass through you. Children are often our greatest teachers, but what happens if their lesson is too heavy to hold? In Our Children, Our Teachers, a high school in rural Brenden, Washington (a fictitious town from the novels Palindrome Hannah and Phoenix Rose) is taken hostage by a gathering of unlikely students trying to teach the world a new lesson …

And …

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Enso is available once again, also for only $5.95 as a pocket-sized trade paperback.  Previously only published in a 100-numbered / signed edition (most of which burned to ash in the California wildfires), the book is now available unsigned. Enso features four intertwined children’s fables about the circle of life, and illustrations by L.A. Spooner.

YEAR OF THE DRAKEIN

Year of the Dragon will not return until 2024, but next year, 2018, will hopefully be the year I unleash Drakein upon the world, a project I’ve been working on for over ten years. Drakein-5 is a hallucinatory street drug taken in the form of eye drops, and the fuel behind Psychotropic Dragon, the composite novel / meta-novel I’m co-writing with _________________ (name withheld).

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Basically, it’s a novelette wrapped around a novella wrapped around a short novel, illustrated throughout by the likes of Daniele Serra, Glenn Chadbourne, L.A. Spooner, and Ty Schuerman. This book is going to be completely insane. One of the darkest projects I’ve ever attempted. Currently there are over 50 illustrations: some full-page, some half-page, some swimming on and off the page.

The novelette is 10,000 words, the novella will be 20,000, and the short novel portion is around 45,000. Here’s a snip-it from the novel:

 

She remembered holding the syringe that first time, hands trembling. Such a small thing—a third the size of your typical medicinal syringe, the needle a quarter-inch long. Smaller than a cigarette. “Looks like water,” she had said to Chase. The clear liquid inside appeared iridescent under direct sunlight, as if having an oily consistency. She heard it turned bluish-green under black lights. “What happens if I take more than two drops?” Chase had looked away, then, smiling out of the corner of his mouth. “It’s like any drug. Affects each differently. Two drops, no more. It’ll last a couple hours max, and then it’s back to earth. After you level, you can take more.

 

What’s a composite novel? “A composite novel is a literary work composed of shorter texts that—though individually complete and autonomous—are interrelated in a coherent whole according to one or more organizing principles.”

Who is my collaborator? Well, that has to be kept a secret for now, but know that it is someone well-loved in the writing community. Perhaps someone you might not expect.

Some of you have been waiting a long time for this book, so I’m going into overdrive to finally make it happen. Here’s a snip-it of the novelette, in case you can’t wait that long.

 

Somnambulism. That’s what my psychiatrist calls it. Differentiating between dream state and reality is often difficult, which is probably part of the reason for the sleep deprivation. A fear of falling asleep. What if I don’t wake up? What if I can’t wake up? What if the reality I think I know is the dream, or vice versa?

What can you expect out of this book? Expect the unexpected. Expect to be knocked completely out of your socks. Expect to become part of the book, hallucinating from your own dose of Drakein. This book is a trip.

Psychotropic Dragon is a unique collaboration. Along with the writing, this strange book has had many assists along the way. Jack Ketchum, John Skipp, Gary A Braunbeck, Douglas E. Winter, Thomas F. Monteleone, F. Paul Wilson … all have helped this book become something special.

That’s all I can reveal for now, along with Ketchum’s full blurb:

 

Psychotropic Dragon is addictive, scary, and at times, mind-blowing. But it’s the human element that keeps you turning the pages, the wounds to the psyche which we recognize immediately. The human element … and a fierce narrative style. – Jack Ketchum

CHIRAL MAD 4 – OPEN FOR SUBMISSIONS UNTIL 05/31/17

Updated (01/23/17):

Lucy A. Snyder has been chosen to co-edit Chiral Mad 4!

More than twenty requests were received over the last few days to co-edit the anthology (from writers and editors around the world), and after careful consideration, series creator/editor Michael Bailey has chosen to work with Lucy to bring you something entirely new with Chiral Mad 4, an entirely-collaborative anthology.

While previous volumes of Chiral Mad focused more on psychological horror, with most stories having some sort of chiral aspect in plot or character development or structure, Chiral Mad 4 will be open to just about anything, as long as the story has some sort of dark or speculative element. The only required chirality is with the collaboration itself … multiple minds working as one, in other words, to create something entirely new. We want this anthology to be as diverse as humanly possible, and will be looking for stories that bend and blend genres, stories that experiment with structure, and most importantly, stories that are not dependent upon common tropes.


CHIRAL MAD 4

Chiral Mad 4 is officially open for submissions! The anthology is scheduled for publication in the first or second quarter of 2018 by Written Backwards, an imprint of Dark Regions Press, to be co-edited by Bram Stoker Award winning editor Michael Bailey and multi Bram Stoker Award winning (and ever-so-talented) Lucy A. Snyder. Much like Chiral Mad 3 and The Library of the Dead, this latest installment will be published in trade paperback, eBook, and hardback editions.

Unlike past Written Backwards projects, this fourth volume in the critically-acclaimed series of anthologies will be a completely collaborative effort of originality, collecting 4 short stories, 4 novelettes, 4 novellas, and 4 graphic adaptations (to celebrate this 4th book), all co-authored and/or co-created. And the anthology itself will also be co-edited!

The goal of Chiral Mad 4 is to help bring our creative community together, to make us stronger, to strengthen relationships already in place, and to help create new relationships entirely. It’s time for all of us to play nice, to get along, and to do what we do best: create somethings out of nothings… and we’re going to create these beautiful somethings together. Have a specific writer/artist you’ve always admired? Well, now’s your chance. Reach out. Ask! That’s all it takes to get started. Find a partner, or two, or three, and start collaborating! The more unique the collaboration, the better the chances you have of making it into Chiral Mad 4. The more diverse the collaborations, the better the chances you have of making it into Chiral Mad 4. Now, here’s the hard part: knowing whether or not someone is already collaborating… Email CM4@nettirw.com if you have any questions or concerns about this, or to simply email your submission.

While half the anthology will be filled with commissioned works (the book is nearly half-filled already, with a few of the early acceptances announced below), the rest of the anthology is open for submissions for a short period of time. The submission window for non-commissioned contributors closes May 31st, 2017. So get to it! This is a very short window of opportunity.

Acceptances for non-commissioned work will not be announced until after June 30th, 2017, so we ask that we hold onto your work exclusively until then, as each submission will be carefully considered and agreed upon by both editors of this anthology. No simultaneous submissions, please.

What are we looking for?

  • 4 short stories (5,000 words max)
  • 4 novelettes (10,000 words max)
  • 4 novellas (20,000 words max)
  • 4 graphic adaptations (1,500 words max, or 10 pages)

Payment will be $.06 per word, capped at the max word counts listed above, split evenly between contributors. Two contributors writing a 5,000-word short story, for example, would split $300, or $150 each. Contributors writing a 10,000-word novelette would evenly split $600. Contributors writing a 20,000-word novella would evenly split $1,200. Graphic adaptations will be determined by the publisher/creators prior to acceptance; these are unique collaborations and payments for such are not as simple to calculate. In fact, 3 of the 4 slots for graphic adaptations are already filled, so please query CM4@nettirw.com before submitting. And, as always, contributor copies of each edition are part of the deal. Written Backwards has worked with many illustrators and artists in the past, so if you have a script but not an illustrator/artist lined-up, please let us know and we can arrange one for your story if we fall in love with your script.

CHIRAL MAD 4 - Graphic Adapations

That said, the first acceptances for Chiral Mad 4 include the following:

  • Elizabeth Massie & Marge Simon have joined forces with a new short story called “The Substance of Belief” or “At the Crest of the Mountain.”
  • Glenn Chadbourne and Jack Ketchum have been commissioned to adapt “Firedance.”
  • James Chambers, Jason Whitley, and Christopher Mills have collaborated on “The Ghost of the Bayout Piténn,” a sample of which is pictured above.

Other commissioned works include a novelette co-authored by a foursome of writers, and even a collaboration between a contemporary writer and a writer no longer with us.

So, hopefully all of this gets you excited, gets you eager to reach out to others in our creative community. Chiral Mad 4 is the most ambitious project ever imagined by Written Backwards. Please, be a part of it. Send your work to CM4@nettirw.com.

4 short stories / 4 novelettes / 4 novellas / 4 graphic adaptations

4 short stories / 4 novelettes / 4 novellas / 4 graphic adaptations

 

BONES ARE MADE TO BE BROKEN / OTHER MUSIC / THE EIGHTH

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000038_00074]Bones Are Made To Be Broken by Paul Michael Anderson is now available in trade paperback and eBook from Written Backwards, an imprint of Dark Regions Press. This is the first fiction collection by Paul Michael Anderson, and the first fiction collection published by Written Backwards. The book is also available at Amazon.com. Jack Ketchum calls the collection “a dark carnival of rigorous intelligence and compassion.”  Jonathan Maberry says it’s “a truly superb collection of deeply unnerving short stories.” And Craig DiLouie says “Bones Are Made To Be Broken challenges the mind and punches the gut.”  Is that not enough to convince you?

pay-attention_cropped_bw-2

Written Backwards, the multi-award-winning imprint of Dark Regions Press, continues its saga of producing some of the most beautiful books published today with Bones Are Made To Be Broken, a speculative blend of horror, science fiction, and raw unfiltered emotion by Paul Michael Anderson. 14 works of fiction are collected in this tome, including “All That You Leave Behind,” “To Touch the Dead,” “Love Song for the Rejected,” and a title novella written specifically for this collection. Every story is illustrated by Pat R. Steiner, an award-winning illustrator in the long-running Illustrators of the Future contest, and author of Enlarge Your Tentacles Overnight and Wyrd.

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Bones Are Made to Be Broken includes the following:

  1. Crawling Back to You
  2. Survivor’s Debt
  3. Baby Grows a Conscience
  4. A Nice Town with Very Clean Streets
  5. The Doorway Man
  6. Love Song for the Rejected
  7. Surviving the River Styx
  8. The Agonizing Guilt of Relief (Last Days of a Ready-Made Victim)
  9. The Universe is Dying
  10. Reflecting the Heart’s Desire
  11. To Touch the Dead
  12. In the Nothing-Space, I Am What You Made Me
  13. All That You Leave Behind
  14. Bones Are Made to Be Broken (title novella).

“Anderson’s style is tensely exciting. This collection is a treasure for any horror or dark SF fan’s library.” – Marge Simon, Vectors: A Week in the Death of a Planet

“Paul Michael Anderson writes like no other writer in dark fiction. Simply, he writes a Paul Michael Anderson story—the highest compliment any serious writer can hope to achieve.” – Gene O’Neill, The Cal Wild Chronicles

Yeah, it’s that good. Click the links, or the image of the book, and purchase a copy already!

OTHER MUSIC

Also available, Other Music, the debut solo novel by Marc Levinthal. This is the first novel in the new Dark Regions Sci-Fi imprint from Dark Regions PressOther Music features an introduction by John Skipp, who says the novel is “entirely the kind of forward-thinking, playfully-subversive, nobody-else-could-have-written-this-tickling-at-the-normosphere book I’ve always loved.”

What’s it about?

With the discovery of the Thompson Corridors, the universe has been opened up, connecting humankind with a vast network of sentient species. Xenosociologist Jesse Suzuki, a nanotech-rejuvenated “oldster,” has joined the forced exodus of the newly young, mandated by law to ship out through the Corridors after his 80th birthday. Jesse finds his way to Eastlink, a sprawling human habitat orbiting Shjodathz, home to a race of regenerating beings who maintain direct memory of all their past incarnations. While studying the Shjodathi and their planetary biomachine guardian Kedel, he discovers a strange anomaly within the AI’s mind that leads him on a perilous, mind-blowing adventure… Fans of David Marusek, William Gibson, R.A. Wilson and Philip K. Dick will find common ground here – it’s hard science fiction adventure with an eye toward metaphysics.

And last but not least, The Eighth, the debut novel by Stephanie M. Wytovich.

THE EIGHTH

After Paimon, Lucifer’s top soul collector, falls in love with a mortal girl whose soul he is supposed to claim, he desperately tries everything in his power to save her from the Devil’s grasp. But what happens when a demon has to confront his demons, when he has to turn to something darker, something more sinister for help? Can Paimon survive the consequences of working with the Seven Deadly Sins-sins who have their own agenda with the Devil—or will he fall into a deeper, darker kind of hell?

The Eighth is a stellar horror debut from Stephanie Wytovich. An intimate, painful map of personal and literal hells that would make Clive Barker proud.” – Christopher Golden, New York Times bestselling author.

Buy all three in either trade paperback or eBook, and / or pre-order the deluxe hardback edition of each now at www.darkregions.com.

What are you waiting for?

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000038_00074]

 

 

BRAM STOKER AWARDS ® – THE LIBRARY OF THE DEAD

THE LIBRARY OF THE DEAD - DRP Edition* UPDATE: pre-order for the deluxe signed/limited edition of The Library of the Dead sold out within the first 24 hours, but the trade paperback is still on sale for 33% off at Dark Regions Press.

The Library of the Dead took home the Bram Stoker Award ® for Superior Achievement in an Anthology at the inaugural StokerCon in Las Vegas, NV, hosted by the Horror Writers Association.

I’m still in shock, and at a loss for words, so I’ll keep this short. StokerCon was quite an event, with a book-signing/release for both Chiral Mad 3 (which sold out!) and The Library of the Dead  (which moved quite a lot of copies). Many contributors from both anthologies were available and signed copies like mad. We filled out a bunch of  tip/signature sheets for the future deluxe limited editions coming soon from Written Backwards / Dark Regions Press, including Chiral Mad 3, The Library of the Dead, You Human (the first science fiction anthology in a long time from DRP), The Cal Wild Chronicles (Gene O’Neill), and Other Music (Marc Levinthal). The best way I can describe this mass-signing chaos is through pictures, which you can find at the end of this post.

CHIRAL MAD 3 - DRP Edition

A few copies of the deluxe signed/limited hardbound edition of Chiral Mad 3 remain, which can be pre-ordered by clicking the cover image above; this will be signed by everyone involved, except for King. Chuck Palahniuk, Glenn Chadbourne, and all other contributors will be signing these books, so you will want to pick up a copy. The trade paperback is available for purchase now if you don’t want to wait that long.

As for the conference, I served on only one panel this year alongside fellow anthologists Ellen Datlow, Thomas F. Monteleone, and Stephen Jones, attended a few readings, and kicked back to enjoy the company of longtime friends alongside my better half, Kelly Rumble (who for some reason thinks we’re getting married in a few weeks). Some of the highlights of this ultra-packed weekend include hanging out (lunches and drinks and aftermath shenanigans of celebratory Irish Car Bombs) with mentors Tom Monteleone and F. Paul Wilson (who Kelly Laymon calls ‘Pauly’), my own past HWA mentoree, Meghan Arcuri (an excellent writer), and one of the best damn female voices writing today, Erinn Kemper. And who can forget the wonderful Jack Ketchum, who I was able to dine/drink with on two occasions over the last few weeks (thanks to the World Horror Convention two weeks prior). And of course Gene O’Neill, who is always a treat, meeting Scott Edelman for the first time (after publishing a few of his works), as well as hanging with Hal Bodner, Jason V Brock, Stephanie Wytovich, Weston Ochse, Yvonne Navarro, Mercedes Yardley, Marge Simon, Lucy Snyder, Eric Guignard, Rena Mason, and I’m sure I’m missing a few names here, but basically a who’s-who of Written Backwards titles. The most horrific part of weekend was standing in front of a room packed full of my peers to accept not only one Bram Stoker Award ® for The Library of the Dead, but a second statue on behalf of Mort Castle, Sam Weller, Chris Ryall, and Carlos Guzman for Shadow Show: Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury, which won for Superior Achievement in a Graphic Novel. So many great memories… One of the most bizarre, perhaps, was accepting both awards on behalf of Brian Keene, who could not be there (an inside joke).

13179348_10206412283767871_5977074888684614861_nTo help celebrate the Stoker, Dark Regions Press is offering 30% off the trade paperback edition of The Library of the Dead, as well as on pre-orders for the deluxe signed/limited hardbound edition to be released later this year (limited to 26 lettered A-Z). Click the book either above or below, or click here, and enter BRAMSTOKERAWARD as your coupon code when checking out for a 30% discount. If you prefer Amazon, or you run into any problems, you can find it here.

Anyway, the chaos I promised…

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THE LIBRARY OF THE DEAD - DRP Edition