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
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
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
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.
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.
turned on my heel and swung into their group, getting right up
into Brandon's face. I didn't even have to stand on
"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
Brandon, you might get your ass handed to you by that
"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
"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
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
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.
sunshine," he teased. "Who're you fixing to kill? And can I
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.
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
The power was
"Think they'll let
us go home?" Mason grinned at me, wide awake now.
"Assuming it stays
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.
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
finished, and pointed at Rachel, who was sitting closest to
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 horrible scream
shattered the brief silence, and Mrs. Dawson ran to the
"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
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
I pushed my way
through the people to her, gently touching her shoulder.
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
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.
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
"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
call the police," I offered in a whisper. I knew someone had to
have a cell phone. I'd left mine at home.
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
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
Then, a voice.
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.
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
"I'll give you one
more warning, bitch. Shut up or die!"
There was a pause,
There was screaming
and yelling, and a loud noise like something had fallen. Everyone
Then it occurred to
classroom was the closest to ours.
Were we going to be
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
The tube she kept
her poster board in was just flimsy cardboard. As I rummaged
through the papers and supplies, something clattered to the
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
"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
piece of shit! Shoot him, if you want to live!"
There was a pause,
"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?
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
Mrs. Dawson had her
head in her hands. She didn't seem to care about me moving around
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
The noise was so
loud, for a moment, I thought the world had exploded.
to be surrounded by molasses as my eyes watched what happened in
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, 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
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
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
Mason ran over to
"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.
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
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
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.
shrieked. It was Ellie. She was standing, her little fists
clenched as her sides. Streams of moisture glistened on her
Matt was Ellie's
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
"Keep an eye on
"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
We weren't going to
back down. Not without a fight.
"No," we answered
in unison, strong and clear. Dawson nodded, clenching her hands
"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
The police were
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
We stopped outside
of Mr. Cambell's room. I peered into the window.
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
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
"Catch a tiger by
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-
stumbled, crying out as he slapped his hand over his
"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
"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.
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.
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
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
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
The world was
I dropped my
pistol, not hearing it clatter to the floor as I fell to my
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
"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
"Mason, shhh," I
whispered, brushing his long hair from his eyes. Suddenly, I
remembered the third gunman. I looked up, reaching for my
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
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
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.
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
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
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
"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
"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
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.