I remember that day being especially cold.
It had been nice all week; we were having luck with the fall weather. So that morning I didn’t put on a coat, just a hoodie. As soon as I walked out of the house to wait for the bus, I knew it’d been a mistake. But I couldn’t turn back for fear of missing my ride. Mom would be madder than hell if I woke her up because I missed the bus. So I gritted my teeth and walked down the driveway.
It was the type of cold that seeped right down into your bones and made them ache real bad. It was the type of cold that left your insides freezing long after your skin had warmed up again.
The bus didn’t come right away, so I paced back and forth, like they say you’re supposed to in order to keep warm. As my shoes crunched back and forth over the frost bitten pavement and I was shivering violently, I couldn’t help but think what a load of bullshit that was.
I had never been happier when the long yellow vehicle finally came to halt in front of me, the sweet relief of the heater melting away my goose bumps.
At the time I had just taken it as an indication that the winter season was starting to take over, and feeling angry about it. I could hardly stand the thought of pushing through another long New York winter, my sweet summer so far away.
Looking back though, and knowing what I do now, the biting cold was almost like an omen.
I knew today was going to be a shitty day when I walked into school. I’d turned the corner, headed towards my locker, just in time to see that jerk Brandon knock Liam’s books from his hands as he and his posse walked by.
They all started whooping and hollering, laughing like hurting someone was just the damndest thing.
I deliberately turned on my heel and swung into their group, getting right up into Brandon’s face. I didn’t even have to stand on tip-toe.
“You got a lot of nerve, asshole,” I spat, and before he could respond I slammed into his shoulder with my body, making him stumble as I walked through him to Liam.
All the boys went ‘oooooh’ and laughed, and the group continued to move away.
“Watch out, Brandon, you might get your ass handed to you by that dike!”
“What a badass!” I heard Brandon yell.
Not the least phased, I stooped and helped Liam gather his scattered papers. I had given up worrying about what other people said a long time ago.
“Thanks a lot, Ava, I owe you one,” Liam mumbled as we finally stood. He looked miserable as I handed him my stack of papers.
“You listen to me, Liam. Don’t you let them bother you, they’re just a bunch of jerks. Brandon is so full of himself he can’t see past his own reflection. If you stop caring what they think, they can’t hurt you anymore,” I said in an almost motherly voice. He smiled a little and nodded.
“He isn’t even that good looking,” he said, his grin getting bigger. We both laughed a bit and went our separate ways after he thanked me again.
Despite the laugh, I was mad as a hellhound. I jammed my ear buds in and blasted music like I wanted my ears to bleed. People like Brandon really got my blood boiling. Whenever he said things to me, I could care less, but seeing it happen to other people was a different story.
I walked into English and sat down, Mrs. Dawson looking up from the laptop screen at her desk to stare at me for a second, alarmed by the loud music. I avoided eye contact. I liked Mrs. Dawson, but I didn’t really feel like talking at the moment.
One by one, kids started to file into the classroom.
I pulled an ear bud out as Mason plopped down next to me, his heavy backpack hitting the desk with a loud thuck. He grinned at me.
“Good morning, sunshine,” he teased. “Who’re you fixing to kill? And can I help?”
Seeing how events unfolded that day, I couldn’t help but see the awful irony in those words now.
He managed a smile out of me at that time though. I turned down my music and told him what happened with Liam.
“Assholes,” he growled. I could see his eyes darkening, his jaw clenched. Mason and I were on the same page about a lot of things, and bullies were one of them.
“Ava, put that away,” Mrs. Dawson said as she made her way to the front of the room. I wrapped my ear buds around my iPod and tucked it away in my bag. The din of voices died down as she took a stance at the board, hands on her hips.
“We’re going to continue watching Romeo + Juliet today, folks. I want no talking; your absolute attention is to be on the movie. Remember, you’re writing a comparison essay on the old and modern movies. So the less you pay attention,” she paused to give us the famous Dawson glare, “the less your grade.”
She hit he play button and returned to her desk, heels clicking.
I admired that woman. She had spunk.
The movie picked up where we left off. Mason and I would have to hold off the asshole rant until later.
I really liked Romeo + Juliet; it was interesting to see the modernization of such an old, classic story. Some of the parodies were downright funny though; like how the official names of their guns weren’t pistol or riffle, but sword and dagger. Or how Mercutio dressed up in a tutu for the costume party. Also, I never would have been introduced to Radiohead had it not been for ‘Talk Show Host’ being in this movie.
Mason did not share my passion for the movie, however. I had to keep nudging him awake every ten minutes or so to keep him from getting detention. I had noticed Mrs. Dawson giving him the evil eye from her desk, and I didn’t want it to escalade on the poor guy. He was already juggling school, a sport, and a job. He didn’t need detention on his plate too. It explained why he was so tired.
Class was about fifteen minutes before ending when there was a sharp click and the projector and lights shut off spontaneously. I heard Mrs. Dawson make a noise as her computer screen went black.
A cheer rose up among us, and I could hear it echoed in neighboring classrooms.
The power was out!
“Think they’ll let us go home?” Mason grinned at me, wide awake now.
“Assuming it stays out, yeah!”
“Settle down, settle down,” Mrs. Dawson called over everyone’s excited chatter, her heels clicking in sharp staccatos as she made her way up to the front of the room again.
“You’ve all had power outs before, no big deal,” she smiled at us teasingly. “Until we get instructions for what to do, sit tight. We can pass the time with some poetry analyzing!” She struck a funny pose, over dramatizing the excitement.
Everyone groaned. She pretended to look wounded.
“Well, in that case, let’s play some hangman!” She smiled at our relieved faces, and taking up a marker drew the hangman’s noose and dashes for letters.
She turned, finished, and pointed at Rachel, who was sitting closest to her.
“Well start with-”
Everyone jumped at the two sharp sounds that echoed from further down the hall. We glanced wide-eyed at each other, Mason and I. Had that been a-
A horrible scream shattered the brief silence, and Mrs. Dawson ran to the door.
“Everyone get in that corner,” she shrieked, jabbing a finger at the corner adjacent to the door, where we couldn’t be seen from the door window.
We all sat there, staring dumbly at her.
Chairs squealed as we leapt up, huddling in the corner. Someone was crying; it was Ellie, a little mouse of a girl. She was shaking really bad.
I pushed my way through the people to her, gently touching her shoulder.
“Ellie, shush, don’t get yourself worked up. We’re going to be alright,” I cooed. I was surprised when she latched onto my hand, like a child to its mother.
“Those were guns, Ava,” she wailed in a thin, scared voice. “We’re going to get shot!”
Everyone heard her say it, and suddenly the whole class was in hysterics. Most of the girls started crying, some of the boys too.
I looked helplessly at Mason. He looked scared, but heck, so was I. My heart was beating fast. But Mason wasn’t panicking. That’s one thing I liked about him. He’d get mad as hell when he heard stuff like what happened to Liam, but when it came to something really serious, like now, he kept a cool head.
“Everyone quiet!” Mrs. Dawson yelled, waving her arms. She had locked the door and covered the window with poster board. A silence fell and we all watched as she went and drew the shades.
She came back to the corner. She spoke again, but her voice was trembling as she did.
“All of you, sit,” she commanded, lowering herself down as she said it. We sat on the floor, about nineteen of us, huddled together.
“We need to stay silent. The worst thing we can do it make our presence known.”
“Someone should call the police,” I offered in a whisper. I knew someone had to have a cell phone. I’d left mine at home.
Mason quickly produced his cell from his pocket, and I watched as he dialed 9-1-1. Everyone was watching, actually.
The muffled voice of the operator came through the receiver.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
His voice was rushed and nervous.
“There’s gunmen at the high school, Jacksonville High, please-”
Everyone jumped as the shots rang out, and Mason dropped his phone. A chorus of screams rose up from down the hall.
As the screams died down, a wail rose up, terrible and frightening. Ellie sobbed loudly.
Then, a voice. Screaming, begging.
“Please, please, have mercy; I have a husband and kids… I just found out last week, I’m pregnant. Please, I’m begging you-”
“Shut up!” A harsh, biting yell replied. I could see everyone’s minds racing, trying to identify the voice. I knew the woman who had spoken, judging boy how far away they sounded.
It was Mrs. Catchman. This was only her second year at Jacksonville.
“Please, no, don’t hurt him!” She shrieked.
“Shut up, woman, or I’ll do it for you!”
I realized I was crying. I looked to Mason.
“We have to do something,” I whispered. Everyone was dead quiet, so my whisper to Mason was heard.
“Get yourself killed, Ava?” Mrs. Dawson snapped. Tears were streaming down her face. “Everyone’s staying right here.”
“No! Don’t shoot,” Mrs. Catchman wailed desperately. We jumped, waiting for the shots. Some had closed their eyes. I found Mason’s hand and clung to it. I didn’t know what else to do. He squeezed my hand tight.
“I’ll give you one more warning, bitch. Shut up or die!”
There was a pause, then-
There was screaming and yelling, and a loud noise like something had fallen. Everyone gasped.
Then it occurred to me:
Mrs. Catchman’s classroom was the closest to ours.
Were we going to be visited next?
I glanced around the room, looking for something, anything.
There were the textbooks, big and heavy. But they were too small; to easy to miss with. I stood and went over to Mrs. Dawson’s cupboards, opening them to check their contents.
“Ava, you sit back down this instant! Get away from that door!” Dawson hissed. I ignored her.
The tube she kept her poster board in was just flimsy cardboard. As I rummaged through the papers and supplies, something clattered to the floor.
It was a screw driver. I got an idea.
“Ava, what are you doing? Sit!” As I stood from picking up the screwdriver, a hand fell on my shoulder. I turned, expecting to see my infuriated teacher.
It was Mason.
“Ava, please come sit,” Mason pleaded in a whisper.
“I’m not letting anyone in here die without a fight,” I replied. My voice was steady, demanding despite my whisper.
“Please, no, don’t make me,” a voice came from the neighboring classroom. It was male, a student. We all froze, listening.
“God damn it, shoot him!” There was a thud, and some people cried out.
“No!” Came the voice again.
“You worthless piece of shit! Shoot him, if you want to live!”
There was a pause, then:
“Look, I don’t know who hurt you. Who made you want to do this. But you aren’t being any better than them. Please, stop.”
“Just shut up and shoot!” Was it just me, or had the gunman’s angry, commanding voice shook a little?
“Their opinion doesn’t matter… if… if you stop caring about what they think, they can’t hurt you anymore.”
“You’ve got one last chance. Pull the trigger or die.”
“I’d rather die.” His voice was just loud enough to hear.
A gunshot rang out; sharp and biting, making us wince.
Sobbing quietly, I knelt by one of the desks, and set to work unscrewing one of the legs. My hands were trembling.
I looked up to see the ashen, tearful faces of my peers watching me. Some were holding each other, no, clinging to each other, for dear life.
Mrs. Dawson had her head in her hands. She didn’t seem to care about me moving around anymore.
The screw clattered to the floor. Ellie yelped at the noise, and then threw her hands over her mouth.
I lowered the three-legged desk to the floor, hefting the long metal shaft that had been its fourth leg. It wasn’t very heavy, but it was heavy enough to do damage.
“Ava, what’re you…?” He watched as I stepped away from him, swinging the leg like a baseball bat, testing it. I watched as his eyes lit up, understanding. Without hesitating, he went to work freeing one of the desk’s other legs.
“All of you, put your cell phones in the box!” We heard the gunman yell. I wondered faintly if the operator had dispatched police to the school yet.
How long would it be until they got here?
Footsteps sounded I the hall, drawing close to our door. Mason and I looked at each other. His blue eyes were bright with fear and something else- excitement? My heart was hammering on my ribs, and my mind was numb as we nodded to each other, edging closer to the door.
I gripped the metal bar tightly, trying to stop my hands from shaking.
Someone banged on the door loudly, and Ellie and several other girls screamed.
The door rattled in its hinges as the gunman kicked it. Suddenly, the glass shattered and a fist flew through, fragments falling to the floor like rain. The poster board Mrs. Dawson had used to cover the window fell. The hand searched for the lock, fingers groping across the wood of the door toward the handle.
Taking a deep breath, I raised the desk leg and swung.
The metal connected with his hand with a loud thwack, cracking against the door. There was a crunch, and the owner of the hand yelled, yanking it back through the window.
I unlocked the door and threw it open.
A tall figure was outside, clutching his hand to his chest with the other, which held a gun. A black ski mask covered his face.
He looked up at me in surprise, and before he could react I swung again, hitting him hard in the other hand.
He reeled backwards with a cry, the pistol clattering to the floor.
We both lunged for it, and I felt him grab a fistful of my hair.
Suddenly, Mason was there. He swung his bar, and I watched as it collided with the side of the gunman’s masked face. I snatched up the pistol, aiming it at him.
He hit the floor from Mason’s blow, sprawling out. He rolled to look at us, and seeing the pistol in my grasp, put his hands up.
“Help!” He yelled.
There was a noise down the hall, and I turned to see a second masked person appear from Mrs. Catchman’s doorway. He yelled and started running towards us, hefting his gun.
I squeezed the trigger.
The noise was so loud, for a moment, I thought the world had exploded.
Everything seemed to be surrounded by molasses as my eyes watched what happened in slow motion.
The bullet slammed into his shoulder, and blood speckled his white t-shirt. He stumbled, hunching over. Someone ran by me, and I realized it was Mason.
Mason, he has a gun! I wanted to scream. But my voice was stuck and my brain didn’t seem to be working.
I had just shot someone.
Mason raised his bar and cracked it over the gunman’s head, then shoved him to the ground. He fell hard, and didn’t move after he hit the floor.
A piercing noise was ringing in my ears. I realized I was screaming. I closed my mouth, but I couldn’t stop the huge tears from dropping down from my eyes.
Mason ran over to me.
“Ava, Ava, it’s alright,” he insisted, giving me a little shake.
“I thought- I thought,” I stammered, taking a deep breath. “I thought he was going to shoot you,” I sobbed loudly, imagining it had been Mason who had hit the floor, not the gunman.
“I’m fine, Ava,” he smiled at me. “I couldn’t have done it if you hadn’t shot him first. It didn’t kill him, but it sure did distract him from me.” Mason showed me the pistol he had retrieved.
Suddenly, far off downstairs, there were three shrill noises, muffled, but stinging out ears all the same.
Our eyes met, wide and surprised. Mason whirled on the gunman who had broken through the classroom door.
“How many more of you are there?” He bellowed, grabbing a fistful of his shirt. The masked person made a pitiful noise.
“Five… five, there’s five of us!”
Mason grabbed the ski mask, yanking it from his head.
Cory Jackson’s face was revealed, his mess of red hair falling around his face.
I didn’t know him that well. We’d talked a few times, and I remember standing up for him once our freshman year. He was usually by himself. After I stood up for him though, he always waved to me in the hallway.
He was looking at me, I realized, and as our eyes met, he looked away. He was still holding his hand; one of the fingers was bent funny.
“Go get him,” Mason said, nodding towards the motionless figure sprawled out on the floor. He yanked Cory up, leading him inside Mrs. Dawson’s classroom with the gun against his head.
I approached the still form on the cold floor and stooped beside him. Taking a deep breath, I removed his ski mask.
I knew his first name, Matt. A little stream of blood meandered down from his dyed black hair and across his cheek. I checked for a pulse. He was alive. Mason must’ve hit him pretty damn hard, though. I slipped my hands under his arms and dragged him to the classroom, his head lolling forward.
Everyone grasped as I dragged Matt through the door.
“Matt!” Someone shrieked. It was Ellie. She was standing, her little fists clenched as her sides. Streams of moisture glistened on her cheeks.
Matt was Ellie’s brother.
At first I thought she was angry at us for hurting him. But as she brought her hands to her trembling lips and fresh tears fell from her eyes, I knew it wasn’t Mason and I she was upset with.
One of our classmates, Josh, stood and approached us.
“Do you need help?” He asked. Mason and I glanced at each other.
“Yeah, tie them up,” I said, pointing to Mrs. Dawson’s desk. It was probably one of the heaviest objects in the room. I picked the screw driver up and handed it to Josh, nodding to the desk lying on its side.
“Keep an eye on them.”
“Where are you going?” Mrs. Dawson asked.
“There are three more,” Mason answered. “Somewhere downstairs.”
Mrs. Dawson paused, wringing her hands together. She had stopped crying.
“Is there anything I can say to make you stay here?”
Mason and I looked at each other again. Something passed between us then, from my brown eyes to his blue ones and back again. An unspoken promise.
We weren’t going to back down. Not without a fight.
“No,” we answered in unison, strong and clear. Dawson nodded, clenching her hands into fists.
“Give ‘em hell,” she replied, her voice cold and icy. I saw our classmates nodding. Everyone was looking as us as if they were seeing us for the first time.
Mason left the classroom, and I followed. I was walking out the door when Cory yelled after me.
“Ava, wait! Shoot me, please!” He was crying. I turned my eyes falling on the murderer Josh had tied to the desk.
“Please,” he said again, quietly this time.
“Fuck you. You can live with the guilt,” I answered bluntly, then left.
As Mason and I descended the staircase, I heard sirens rising up in the distance.
The police were coming!
No sooner had I let the hope swell up in me than it was crushed.
Shots rang out downstairs, followed by a chorus of screams.
We broke into a sprint, the lockers and closed doors flying by in a blur of adrenaline. I remember out footsteps being loud as thunder.
We stopped outside of Mr. Cambell’s room. I peered into the window.
Everyone was sitting in their desks, even Mr. Cambell. Two gunmen stood at the front of the room, and a third stalked up and down the rows of desks.
Blood was spattered across the windows.
“Ini, meani, miney, mo,” the masked person was saying in a sickly sweet voice, touching his gun to the head of each student as he walked by.
“Catch a tiger by the toe…”
“Ava,” Mason whispered. He held up one of the black ski masks we had claimed from Cory and Matt. “The masks!”
We quickly pulled them on, and I quietly pulled the handle of the door down, easing it open. No one noticed except the girl sitting closest the door. It was Holly Smith, a close friend of mine. Her red, wet eyes widened in horror. I raised a finger to my lips, and she closed her eyes and nodded.
“My mother told me to pick this one right over. Here.”
The gun barrel came to a rest on Brandon Porter’s head. Brandon. Liam’s torturer. I felt my eyes burn. Liam was dead.
“Any last words?” the masked figure asked, laughing. Brandon was sniveling like a child, his head in his hands.
I aimed, setting my sights for the gunman’s shoulder.
“I wish…” Brandon began. “I wish I’d been a better person,” he stammered.
“Well, it’s a little late for that now, isn’t it?”
“I’m sorry, please… I’m sorry, I-”
“Shut up!” He took a step back, raising his gun-
The gunman stumbled, crying out as he slapped his hand over his shoulder.
“Hey, what’re you doing, man?” One of the masked figures at the front of the room yelled as Mason and I raced into the room.
I pointed my gun at him.
“Dude, what the fuck is wrong with you?” He screamed. “Wait, you’re not…” He reached for his gun that was resting on the podium.
I squeezed the trigger, and the pistol roared. He screamed and fell to the floor, blood seeping across his pant leg.
The third gunman dropped his pistol, throwing his hands in the air.
“Ava!” Mason yelled. “Ava, watch out!” I turned in time to see the first one I had shot pointing his gun at me.
I stared down the barrel as he pulled the trigger.
Something slammed into me with a jarring force. I crashed to the floor, my head cracking on the hard ground.
For a moment, I thought I was dead.
Then, I opened my eyes.
Mason was lying next to me in a pool of red. He wasn’t moving. I lifted my hand from the ground; it was slick with his blood.
I don’t remember standing or aiming. I knew I had to have done both though, because one moment I was on the ground and the next I was pulling the trigger.
A bead of red appeared on the gunman’s forehead, and his whole body shuttered. He crashed to the floor like a fallen tree, overturning Brandon’s desk.
No one screamed.
The world was silent.
I dropped my pistol, not hearing it clatter to the floor as I fell to my knees.
I gathered Mason in my arms, removing first my mask, then his. Tears spilled over my cheeks. One of them fell, glistening, onto his closed eyelid.
“Mason,” I choked, a sob bubbling out of my throat. “Oh, god, Mason…”
His shirt was drenched in red. I gingerly peeled it from his skin, revealing the shimmering wet bullet hole in his abdomen. The bullet that was meant for me.
His fingers curled around my hand, and I gasped, raising my eyes to his face.
His eyes were open, brilliant blue sapphires sparkling up at me. He was smiling, and I realized I was too.
“They can’t… they can’t take me down that easy…” he wheezed, his hand trembling.
“Mason, shhh,” I whispered, brushing his long hair from his eyes. Suddenly, I remembered the third gunman. I looked up, reaching for my pistol.
But he was only standing there, his gun still on the floor where he’d dropped it. Our eyes met.
“POLICE!” A deep voice bellowed, and men in uniform streamed into the room. Guns pointed at the masked culprit.
He stooped, without hesitating, reaching for the gun on the floor.
“FREEZE! Drop that weapon!” One of them yelled.
He stood, put the pistol in his mouth, and pulled the trigger.
I made my way down the homogenous white hallways, head down, my eyes puffy and sore.
I had just come from Liam’s funeral.
It had been broadcasted on the live television for the world to see.
Brandon had spoken at the funeral, apologizing for how he treated Liam throughout the years. He had looked me dead in the eyes as he said it. He gave a touching speech about bullying. I wasn’t sure what to make of the speech, or him, yet.
Cory and Matt had attempted to force Liam to shoot a fellow classmate, witness from Mrs. Catchman’s room revealed. Cory held the gun, putting Liam’s finger over the trigger while Matt held hid gun against Liam’s head.
He chose to die instead of shoot, saving his classmate’s life.
Sara Catchman and her unborn child had also been killed. She’d leapt in front of a bullet intended for a student.
Counting Mrs. Catchman and Liam, eight people had died. That included Ryan Fletcher, who’d committed suicide when the police came, and Derek Steinburg, who I’d shot and killed.
His family didn’t press charges.
I shivered, pushing his face from my mind. I hadn’t slept in three days. Every time I closed my eyes, he was there, glaring at me hatefully.
His mother had been at Liam’s funeral. She had approached me, and in tears told me she forgave me, that I was a hero. I didn’t feel like a hero as she stood there crying, her eyes already read and swollen from days of doing so. I’d felt like a cold-blooded murderer.
I walked into room 528.
Mason was sitting up in his hospital bed, eating and watching T.V. He turned his luminous blue eyes on me, and they seemed to get brighter.
I smiled a real smile for the first time in days.
He put his tray aside and hugged me. I squeezed him tight, remembering my relief yesterday when they had called to say he’d pulled through surgery.
“Ow, careful, Ava,” he said. I pulled away quickly.
“Sorry!” I cried, feeling bad. But he was still smiling. Suddenly, it faded.
“I just watched Liam’s funeral service,” he said quietly.
“They zoomed in on you and Derek’s mom, when she came and talked to you.
I felt my stomach flip.
“Great,” I sighed. I felt my eyes sting. I gritted my teeth. I didn’t want to cry again. Mason’s hand closed over mine.
“Ava, don’t beat yourself up. It isn’t your fault.” A tear spilled over.
“Yeah, it is. I didn’t have to kill him. I just…” My voice trembled. “I thought he’d killed my best friend… I saw red. I didn’t think… I…”
“Hey, c’mere,” he said, pulling me into another embrace. He let me cry on his shoulder for a while.
“Ava, when was the last time you slept?” he asked after I finally pulled away, wiping away my tears.
“I haven’t slept since it happened,” I muttered. It was a wonder I’d made it through the funeral.
Mason scooted over, slowly to avoid hurting himself, then patted the spot next to him.
I don’t think I’d ever been in a more comfortable bed. Mason settled his arm around me, and I rested my cheek on his chest. His heartbeat was strong and full of life.
When I closed my eyes, Derek wasn’t there.
Mason and I fell asleep, finally at peace. It was over, and we’d survived.
We were safe.