By Saturday morning I was flying. It’s amazing what a good night of sleep and an optimistic outlook can do for a girl. It was going to be a great day. It was going to be the day I finally went back to the dojo.
But, before diving into an afternoon with Marco, there was one small chore on my to do list and it was one that I could not blow off. I had to meet Mr. Crabtree for coffee.
Friday at the end of school he cornered me. Really, it was my own fault. I felt so bad for ditching him in town that afternoon that I couldn’t bring myself to pretend I didn’t see him waving wilding at me across the hall. I walked over to wish him a good weekend then one thing led to another and suddenly there was a wrinkle in my Saturday plans.
It was one cup of coffee and I was heading to that part of town anyway, I reasoned. A quick stop with a lonely old man wasn’t the worst way to start a day. Plus, a part of me hoped that small act of kindness would out weight the evils of my clandestine human lie detector trials.
Guilt is powerful.
I beat Crabtree to the café and was deep in the line when he arrived. The place was crowded. We decided I should get the drinks while he searched for seats and a few seconds later he was waving at me from one of the tables along the sidewalk outside.
I placed our order and I looked back to signal Crabtree but he wasn’t watching. There was a skinny man in sweats and running shoes at the table with him and the two appeared to be in the middle of a serious conversation.
It wasn’t anyone I knew but Crabtree seemed relaxed with him. They were both leaning in and words passed back and forth quickly. My lonely teacher had a friend. That was a story I wanted to hear so when our drinks came I grabbed the cups and hurried over to introduce myself.
I never got the chance. As soon as skinny guy saw me he was up and moving and before I could say one word he was gone.
“You’re buddy didn’t have to go,” I said, handing Crabtree his coffee. “There’s room and I don’t mind.” Truthfully I was happy to see that my teacher knew someone else in town besides me. He needed a social life.
“What? Oh. yyes…” He stuttered. “Well see…he..I…”
“He was a friend, wasn’t he? He sure kept you talking long enough.”
“Yes, well actually…” Crabtree seemed to be struggling. I didn’t get it. I wasn’t asking anything personal.
“Are you alright?” I asked. “Was he bothering you? Want me to call the manager?” Crabtree shifted in his seat.
“No, it’s alright.” He said. “I’m not sure I would call that man my friend, but he isn’t a pest. He only wanted to pay respects.”
“Respects? Who died?”
“Oh my gosh I am so sorry! I didn’t even know you were married.”
“No, it’s not quite like that. Betty passed away several years ago.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Thank you, that means a lot but I’m fine. We had 35 wonderful years together, I will always have that.”
“So that guy was friends with your wife?”
“Mr. Green,” he said. “And yes and no. Betty helped him during a difficult time. Betty helped a lot of people through difficult times. This was the first chance Mr. Green has had to say what a difference she made for him.”
“Wow. What did she do? Was she a councilor or something?”
“Did I say something wrong?” I asked. Crabtree didn’t look comfortable at all. “We don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want.”
“I’m sorry Violet,” he said with a long sigh. “I was never very good at this.”
“Good at what?”
“My wife, the work she did, it wasn’t something I was allowed to talk about.” He told me. “See she worked with people… people like you, I mean, not like you, just… young people...only young people with problems they needed to get away from.”
“Like kids on drugs?”
“Well, no not exactly.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I’m sorry,” he apologized, then to himself he added, “this is silly...”
“Really, we can talk about something else…”
“No,” Crabtree cut in. “It was years ago. There’s no reason for me to keep quiet about it anymore.” He looked me square in the face. “Violet, my wife worked for an organization that helped young people, trapped in a life they didn’t choose, to escape.”
“Among other things.”
“Yes, she was a wonder.” His eyes sparkled, remembering. “Because of her, I learned a lot and met some amazing people…”
“Oh.” I said, understanding at last. “That guy…he was…”
“Yes. But now he’s free, living a real life. No one will ever control him again. In fact, today he’s continuing the work my wife loved.”
“You know, I’m glad we ran into him today.” Crabtree smiled, springing back to life. “The world is full of difficulty. I forget sometimes how important it is for people your age to know that there are those you can turn to.” He looked in my eyes again. “Violet, I’m going to be very serious for a moment.”
“Uh,” I tried to lean back without looking like I was pulling away. “OK…”
“I’m certain this won’t ever happen to you,” Crabtree continued, “but if it does, if you find yourself in a tough spot, remember there are people who can help.”
“Yeah, OK. I’ll do that.” I replied feeling a little uncomfortable.
“Oh dear, I’ve scared you.”
“No, no it’s fine...” I said. He was kind of freaking me out but he meant well. I decided to laugh it off. “Think there are people who can help me get away from my addiction to caffeine?”
Crabtree laughed, a deep happy laugh.
“See, that’s what’s so great about you.” He said. “You never let…”
I turned. I think everyone turned, but no one looked like they knew what the deal was. I think if they had there would have been a lot more screaming and Mr. Crabtree might not have heard me say his name. He might not have moved out of the way. As it was he leaned towards me just in time.
Brick from the wall behind us, the one less than two feet from Crabtree’s head, rained down. The sidewalk erupted in screams. Gun shots, two of them. Someone had fired into the crowd and one of the bullets hit the building. I scanned the area looking for the shooter. The ringing in my ears told me he was close. I couldn’t see anything though. People were running in all directions trying to get away and I quickly realize a smart person would be joining them.
I looked at Crabtree. He wasn’t moving. I don’t know if it was age, but he only sat there with a confused look on his face. I landed a hand on his shoulder and grabbed hold.
POP! The shooter wasn’t finished.
“Move!” I yelled and yanked him hard. He fell sideways out of his chair hitting the sidewalk with a thud. I wasn’t far behind. I dove and landed on his chest, knocking the air out of him.
I climbed off Crabtree and looked around. A black car was parked on the curb. Out of the driver’s window I could see the gun.
The couple next to us had overturned their table. I shoved Crabtree towards them.
“Stay down!” I told him. My teacher shook his head and tried to claw his way to me but the man and woman pulled him in. It wasn’t a large table, I would have to find cover elsewhere.
Another bullet zipped through the air, so close I thought I felt it. I had to run. I hopped up and started to move.
Something shattered nearby and my leg gave out from under me. I fell on my knees out of control, my calf burning.
A table smashed to the ground sending a spray of coffee up and out. I crawled to it and curled my body into a ball but suddenly all was quiet. I peeked out from behind my cover. No one was running anymore. Whoever was left was hiding. A few people lay flat out on the ground but it looked like they weren’t hit, just trying not to be.
It was chaos, six and a half seconds of total chaos. Then it was over.
I heard an engine roar. The air filled with black smoke and the stench of rubber as it burned against the pavement. I sat up, desperately to see who was in the car, who had attacked us, but it was too late. The car was on the move. I caught a glimpse of its bumper as it sped around a corner, then it was gone.
I looked over to Crabtree. He was rolling over, trying to get up. Beside him the couple sat arm in arm, their shoulders quaking as terror turned to the relief of survival.
“Are you OK?” I asked. He patted his hands down his chest, as if to make sure.
“I think so!” He nodded. Then he looked at me and his eyes grew to twice their normal size. “Violet, you’re hit!” he pointed. I looked down. There was a tear in my jeans and around it a growing circle of blood.
Crabtree scrambled over, shouting. “Someone please! We need help!”
A man rushed over.
“Are you in pain?” He asked, picking napkins off the ground. Before I could answer there was another scream.
“Oh my God!” A woman shrieked. “Help!”
The man with napkins looked up.
Another person cried out, “he’s not breathing!”
My hero shoved napkins in my hand then pressed it over the cut in my leg and told me to not let go until paramedics arrived. Then he left.
People who had fled when the shooting started returned. With them came dozens more. The sidewalk became clogged with people. A circle formed around Mr. Crabtree and me. He had crawled over and was holding the napkins over my leg while people stood and watched.
The crowds didn’t part until the police arrived and made them. Some left but most of them only moved far enough away to not be in the way. Crabtree and I were left in place waiting for the ambulance. When the wall of people finally parted I could see why my hero ran.
At table close to the curb a man sat upright and still. His arms were at his sides and his head was back, neck bent over the chair. It looked like he was fixated on some point far above. Everyone near was whispering. Behind him two policemen stood studying the wall. There was a wet circle of red and grey slowing oozing down the side of the building.
One of the spectators accidently bumped the man’s chair. His head flopped to the side so that he stared right at Crabtree and me. His expression was frozen in surprise, forever shocked by what he’d seen. Sadly, he wasn’t saying what that was.
He wouldn’t be saying anything to anyone ever again.
Square in the middle of his head, between his wide lifeless eyes, was a bullet hole.