Among the many other projects on which I am working, I am also attempting a story to explore the varying dynamics that may underlie, become seeded, and blossom darkly from the incomprehensible act of mass school shootings. I have no idea if I will be successful. I think it will involve taking myself to a dark place, if I wish to treat the subject matter with the sincere tenderness and respect and truth it requires. So, here is a brief excerpt (itself still a work of a work in progress) of the beginning of Better Angels:
“He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath: ‘The horror! The horror!’”
― Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness – 1899
“Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood! Do him in!”
― William Golding, Lord of the Flies – 1954
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
― Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address – March 4, 1861
“Breach! Breach! Breach!”
With a name like his, one would expect Jackson Neville to be some sort of billionaire philanthropist. Or a writer. He could appreciate and would welcome being known as a writer. Instead, Jackson was a tireless advocate for all things literature- and language-related in a system that cared less and less for his particular expertise—or for those on whose part he served as advocate.
Jackson was a teacher at Lincoln High School. The school itself was one of the low priorities for the District, amounting to little more than that red-headed stepchild who was so often, deserving or not, willfully forgotten and disabused. Lincoln was located in the heart of the city’s urban corridor—an area currently about to experience a much-needed rebirth with plans to redirect an artery of interstate commerce in order to seed a life-giving, reviving community and business area, to renew and exfoliate the currently decaying urban skin.
Tara Messner brushed a strand of her crimson hair behind her ear before adjusting the microphone attached to the forest green blouse she wore—splashes of black woven into the fabric shone like miniature Rorschach shapes, and Tara sometimes wondered what others saw when they looked at those splotches, when they looked at her. The top was one of her favorites, and she liked the way she looked in it—not necessarily beautiful (she questioned her own beauty despite others’ testaments to the fact that she was nothing less than stunning). No, the blouse made her feel professional and being the same top she wore on her first day reporting in the field in Atlanta, it imbued her with a sense of confident nostalgia.
The studio was alight with frantic activity tempered by the stunned and subdued countenances of her co-workers. Tina Walker, Tara’s hair and makeup artist, put on the final touches before the imminent live, breaking news report. Tara was only distantly aware of Gina Mendez applying similar touch-ups to Tara’s fussy co-anchor, James Vallance. Her focus was on the papers in front of her and the unfolding horror story she would have to tell to a community all-too-familiar with the terrible narrative that was unfolding.
More than anything, Tara felt stabs of pain in her chest as if she were experiencing the same fates of the victims on whom she was moments away from reporting.
“Five, four, three…”
The countdown was announced by someone in the studio, but Tara, for the life of her, could not, at that moment, make sense of or recognize the faces that stared back at her from behind the cameras to which she directed her attention.
Officer Harlan was high on adrenaline tempered by unmitigated fear and anger. He gripped tightly his service revolver as he moved along the southern wall of the hallway, which was essentially a bank of student lockers interrupted at regular intervals by classroom doors. Each classroom had a narrow window roughly have as tall as and seated beside each door and above the floor the same half-length as the door. As Harlan came upon classroom by classroom, he glanced through the window, assessing in a split-second what was visible to him, and then he ducked and moved to the other side of the window, pressing his back to the classroom door, once again making a quick and complete assessment to the other half of the room beyond. So far, the classrooms he had observed had been mostly quiet, but even in his brief views, he saw students huddled together as much out of sight as they could manage. Many teachers tried to use their bodies as shields for their students, and even though their backs were often to the classroom door, some seemed to sense Harlan’s presence, turning to give him wide-eyed nods that communicated both messages signaling “all clear” and barely-restrained terror.
Harlan’s shoulder-mounted walkie squawked other officers’ locations and statuses. Shots still echoed throughout the corridors, but no one yet had eyes on the shooter or shooters. Harlan found it disquieting that the only sounds were those of the commanding voices coming through his radio—voices, though on the surface confident and assured, still betrayed cracks in composure with only the subtlest of tremblings—and the intermittent gunfire that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere.
A voice on the radio informed those officers inside that S.W.A.T. was still several minutes out due to a severe traffic accident that was impeding its progress. Procedure would have been for the officers to secure the perimeter and wait for tactical reinforcements, but several of the responding officers had decided that time was not a luxury, and action had to be taken immediately. Several men and women remained outside to provide at least loose perimeter security, while the other uniformed officers—seven in all—elected to breach.
Lincoln had had an armed school liaison officer on sight who had sent out the first communication regarding the shooting before calls began pouring into the 911 emergency dispatch center. However, Officer Frank Delaney had been silent since his initial report, and Harlan knew in what manner that subsequent silence weighed heavily on every other officer’s mind.
As he moved to clear classroom by classroom, Harlan tried to rationalize Delaney’s silence, but the veteran officer was not one who would hunker down and hide. He would have been on the radio guiding and updating his fellow officers, and his current silence could mean only one thing, that they had lost one of their own.
More shots echoed throughout the halls, but under these now, for Harlan, the master track seemed to sound more clearly than the resounding overdubs. He knew then that he was hearing more than just the echoes.
Up ahead, the hall he surveilled intersected with another, forming a sort of crossroads. This vague symbolism was not lost on Harlan as his certainty solidified about what he would discover around one of the two corners ahead.
Harlan could hear pleading, sobbing voices now. The fear in those voices stripped away any hint as to gender. Then four quick bursts of gunfire. His radio squawked a sit-rep request, and Harlan knew in the silence immediately following the last shots, that garbled transmission would have been heard clearly by the shooter.
“Police!” Harlan called as he rushed the intersection, all consideration of procedure forgotten in the immediacy of the moment. “Put down your weapons and get on the floor! Now!” He let instinct tell him which way to turn. Right.
He leveled his revolver at a tall, lanky boy, face obscured by the gray, blood-stained hoodie he wore. The boy held a pistol in his left hand with a bulging duffel bag slung over one shoulder, and he stared, head slightly cocked, at Officer Harlan as he came around the corner.
The boy remained still as a statue in hell.
“Drop your fucking weapon and get on the floor! Now!”
Still, the boy did not move, even has Harlan hurried closer with gun raised, ready to drop the prick the moment he even twitched. Harlan’s radio continued to transmit. He wanted to report but did not chance shifting his focus even in the slightest. By all visible accounts, he had a shooter, but none of the officers could be sure there wasn’t more than one.
“I said drop your goddamn weapon and on the floor, asshole!”
The boy did not move. Harlan was nearly on top of him. He observed at least three bodies sprawled bloodied and motionless behind the suspect. The thick air reeked of gunpowder, copper, and strangely, antiseptic. Blood pooled around the bodies, almost wing-like.
It was then he heard the footfalls behind him.
As the words began scrolling on the teleprompter, for Tara, they might as well have been in Latin or Elvish. They simply did not make sense. None of this made sense, and it never did, no matter when or how often it happened. Still, that confused part of her could hear the professional journalist part taking over to recite the words as they appeared on the teleprompter. Right now, she was like two minds living in the same head. Over here was the one that cowered like a frightened child in the folds of the gray matter that was her brain. This part of her tried to bury itself in the farthest corners of the totality of her consciousness, tried to flee as if doing so, as if getting far enough away would make less real what that other part was right now reporting. Maybe, if she let this part of her mind slip far enough away, she could make unreal what was and would always be far too real. Over there, even as her composure began to crumble and slip, the accomplished professional dutifully read the horrible updates as they appeared on the teleprompter. The frightened mind heard the words “shooting,” “children,” and “casualties” and retreated that much farther. When the recitation was complete, and the cameras were no longer rolling and were turned away, both minds were left in a head hanging in sadness.
Officer Harlan’s heart pounded even more urgently in his chest as the footsteps approached and stopped. Time seemed to drag out as if seconds were minutes, days, weeks. He was fully prepared to be shot in the back one way or another, either by the unknown subject approaching or by the blank-faced teen in front of him should Harlan turn to confront the possible threat behind.
But then the steps were upon him and Harlan heard a familiar voice call out, “At your six,” Officer Coates said. “Got you covered, Harlan.”
He then saw come into view out of the corner of his eye a woman’s hands holding a 9mm Glock and an arm wrapped in uniform blue. “Drop the weapon!” Officer Coates commanded. “Drop it, now!”
Harlan’s heart still raced, but he was sure it was purely adrenaline. The immediate fear response had passed. Now they just had to get this kid down and hope the others either did not find any accomplices or already had them in custody. There had been nothing coming through the radio to suggest the latter, which prompted Harlan to begin to believe he and Coates had a lone shooter in their sights.
“I’m not going to say it again,” Harlan said. “Drop the weapon and get on the ground!”
The boy cocked his head to the other side as if he did not understand the language spoken to him or he was confused by the situation he had fallen into. Harlan saw the boy’s fingers flex around the handle of his own gun—a Luger, Harlan now noticed. The boy lifted his head so that it was no longer cocked but held straight. His face remained completely impassive, showing no signs of any emotion, neither fear, anger, elation, or sadness. The let his shoulders fall, signaling resignation on his part, and Harlan knew that this was the critical moment where the kid surrendered or decided upon suicide by cop. He had to know there was no way he was leaving alive if he drew on them. He had to know that.
The boy extended his left arm out at his side, loosening his grip on the pistol so that only his index finger and thumb kept it from falling to the tiled floor. Without shifting eye contact, he began slowly to kneel and when he was finally on his knees, in the blood he had spilled, he placed his gun carefully on the floor and raised his empty hands to chest level.
As soon as the boy relinquished the firearm, Harlan and Coates rushed him. Coates dropped one hand from her sidearm and reached for her radio. “Coates and Harlan reporting. We have a subject in custody. Over.”
“Roger that,” answered the faceless voice over the radio. What’s your location?”
As Coates covered him and attended to logistics, Harlan pushed the boy face-down on the floor, holstered his sidearm, pulled the boy’s arms behind him, and roughly applied his handcuffs.
More footfalls echoed throughout the halls as other officers came to provide backup.
Harlan grabbed the boy’s arm and hoisted him to his feet.
Coates was checking for signs of life from the three bodies on the ground and reported via radio that they had three fatalities.
More reports returned, even as the five additional officers who had breached with Coates and Harlan appeared at either ends of the hall.
So far, the count was seventeen dead and twelve wounded. Harlan hoped that the count would not go higher, but he knew, invariably it always did. And the victims were never limited to those targets of the shooter. No, for whatever reason, this boy had just viciously assaulted an entire community and the days and weeks ahead would reveal how deep the wounds penetrated.
Bonnie Simmons had been on her cell phone trying to reach her daughter, Amber, since the first news report came on the television. She had been trying now for about half-an-hour, even as the screen currently displayed aerial video of officers in plain blue uniforms and others in full body-armor ushering away from various exit points at the school kids with arms raised over their heads as if these young innocents were criminals themselves. Each student and teacher or staff member was patted down by several officers stationed at a choke point before they were funneled through and allowed to lower their arms as they proceeded even farther away from the school.
Bonnie was frantic. A part of her knew she should also be angry, but right now she only had a depth of emotion able to accommodate her fear of uncertainty. Anger, hot and deep, would come later, no doubt.
She studied the television while repeatedly speed-dialing her daughter’s number, the call always going promptly to voicemail, hoping she might recognize her daughter somewhere in that line of fleeing children. But the distance from camera to the line of marching souls was too great. Zoom the fuck in for Christ’s sake, she silently ordered the cameraman, expecting him to hear her somehow telepathically. Bonnie had also sent Amber several texts that showed as delivered but never answered let alone as even read.
The news reported that police had yet to issue an “all clear,” and suddenly it came to Bonnie that with all the calls and texts she had made she just might have revealed her daughter’s location to the shooter or shooters. She screamed then, frightened and undone by her impotence to help and protect her daughter. She threw the phone down and buried her face in her hands, sobbing uncontrollably and unaware that her sobs would carry on for the rest of her life.