The knock was quick and nearly inaudible, like the intake of breath before a scream. Tap. Professor Grant Bachman stopped in mid-sentence and glanced up at the closed office door.
“Ah, shit,” he said.
It was just past 8 a.m. and the Red Sox thermometer affixed to the outside of Dr. Louis Beam’s faculty office window showed a balmy eighty degrees, sweltering for New Hampshire in late August. Grant had come to Lou’s cramped quarters—the walls adorned with a single framed diploma, two Ted Williams prints, and Farrah Fawcett in all her swoopy haired Seventies glory—for their customary cup of coffee before first-hour classes.
“Hold on,” Grant said, louder this time.
“A good professor knows when to ignore his students,” Lou said, his silver hair barely visible behind the stacks of textbooks and papers piled atop his desk. “A great one knows where to hide their bodies.”
After seven years of teaching American History at Sycamore Community College, Grant not only considered Lou Beam the best department head at the school, but also a surrogate father, one more accepting and less demanding than Grant’s blood father. It was Lou, for instance, who suggested Grant put in for a teaching position at Boston College once the current year ended. “It’s time to move on,” the old man told him over coffee a week earlier. Grant agreed to consider it. He was intrigued and a little intimidated by the idea of teaching at his alma mater, although he hadn’t yet screwed up the courage to discuss it with Lindsay. Who knew how she would respond? Grant’s wife was born and bred in tiny Sycamore, N.H., while Grant hailed from Boston, 50 miles to the south and a lifetime away.
TAP-TAP-TAP. Grant looked at Lou, who arched his wooly white eyebrows and grinned.
Not waiting for a response, a girl poked her head into Lou’s office and smiled. She was petite, blond, and pretty in a generic, college-girl kind of way. Behind her, the hallway swarmed with noisy students late for class. Grant caught snatches of laughter and the thump-thump-thump of some far-off song.
“This is the second time in a week I‘ve found you hiding in here,” she said, hands on her hips. Lou tittered from behind his stack of books.
Grant blinked, immediately feeling guilty. If his childhood therapists were right, guilt was an inevitable byproduct of being raised by The Major. (For as long as Grant could remember, he’d thought of his career military father that way. The Major, both words capitalized and in italics.) The list of damages wrought by his father seemed endless.
Grant stood and nearly knocked over the papers and books that perched precariously on Lou’s desk. It was touch and go for a second as the stacks swayed alarmingly. The cluttered office was the very antithesis of The Major’s rigidly neat study. Grant often wondered if that was why he felt so at home here.
The girl smiled, and Grant realized she was teasing him. “I’m totally concerned about your habitual tardiness, Professor Bachman,” she said. The line sounded rehearsed. Grant would wonder later if the doomed girl trudged to Lou’s office practicing it in her head. The image always saddened him.
He recognized her as a student of his, but couldn’t remember her name. “And you are?”
“It’s me.” Roses of embarrassment bloomed on her cheeks. “You know. Stephanie?”
He shook his head and shrugged. The school year was only a week old and Grant, like most teachers, was still lost in the fog of student-teacher unfamiliarity. He worked hard at getting to know his students’ names, but it took time.
“Stephanie Perkins? From your first-hour American History class? You’re late.” She glared at him, red-faced, and slammed the office door. Her flip-flops smacked the hallway floor as she fled. He immediately felt bad and decided to apologize to her after class.
“Damn.” Grant looked at his wristwatch and then at Lou. “Sorry. I didn’t realize the time.”
Lou waved a knobby hand at him. “Go, before the miserable little cretins get restless and set the classroom afire.” He stood, his knees crackling. “And remember to take my advice on marriage for exactly what it’s worth. I’ve been to the fabled altar three times, and if things go as planned with that churlish old bitch in the library, we might be looking at lucky number four by next June.”
He placed a gnarled hand on Grant’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, son. You’ll spend as much time with your daughters as you can afford, thanks to the family court system. And a handsome young stallion like you won’t be alone for long, if you catch my drift.”
Grant was always surprised by his affection for this man who could have been—should have been—his father. No one at school knew for sure how old Lou was, somewhere north of sixty-five and certainly old enough to retire, although he showed no desire to step away from the classroom. Like Grant, Lou cherished teaching and all things associated with it. Square-jawed and lanky with wavy silver hair and a fondness for hideous sports coats, Lou Beam was a living, breathing Hollywood cliché. Cary Grant with liver spots.
“I’ve been called many things over the years,” Grant said. “But not once have I been referred to as a stallion.”
“I know a schoolgirl crush when I see one.” Lou’s gray eyes twinkled, and Grant decided the old boy had been the object of more than a few such crushes in his day. Lou continued, “You’re a good man, and you’re a wonderful teacher. But good God, son, grow some fucking balls.”
Grant rolled his eyes and opened the door. As he stepped into the hallway, the sharp report of firecrackers echoed down the crowded corridor, an entire roll of them from the sound of it.
“What the hell?” For a moment, he was genuinely perplexed. Then his mind—drawing upon a lifetime of watching cable news—made the connection.
The high-pitched shrieks came from Grant’s left—a sound not unlike house cats being slaughtered. He felt the short hairs on the back of his neck stand up. Students rushed toward him, backpacks and books flying. Some darted into classrooms, while others fell and cowered on the ground.
From the far end of the hallway, backlit by a wash of sunlight streaming through the one large window there, came an expanding cloud of what looked like fog, but which Grant realized with a start was smoke. Out of the haze appeared a dark, hunched figure. Grant watched, horrorstruck, as the shooter casually raised a small assault rifle and fired several times. There was a series of hollow pops and half-a-dozen kids dropped in mid-stride. Their bodies skidded along the tiled floor. Those still on their feet frantically ducked into classrooms or ran faster, their screams increasing in pitch and volume, no longer sounding human.
The dark figure came toward him, firing right and then left, and yet Grant stood unmoving in Lou’s doorway. His fear metastasized into paralyzing terror. It’s coming for me through the fucking smoke. It’s coming. It’s coming. Oh, God, it’s coming…
“Get down.” Lou pulled Grant back into the office and slammed the door. They both dropped to the floor. Grant’s heart was trip-hammering in his chest. He couldn’t catch his breath. As suddenly as it started, the shooting stopped. Grant felt Lou move and looked up. The old man tip-toed to his desk, bent over a file cabinet, and began rummaging in the bottom drawer.
“Lou,” Grant whispered. “What the hell are you doing?”
Lou ignored him and kept feeling his way around the drawer, his silver hair hanging in his eyes. The shooting resumed, much closer now. A fresh round of screams arose, and Grant felt goose bumps break out on his forearms. I’m going to die. I’ll never see my daughters again.
“Ah. There you are,” Lou muttered. Grant glanced up. The old man held a small black revolver in his right hand.
“Jesus Christ, Lou,” Grant whispered. “You keep a gun in your desk?” Despite his terror, Grant was shocked. The old professor was a classic New England liberal who’d marched to end every war since Vietnam. Louis Beam didn’t seem the kind of man who would keep a gun anywhere, let alone in his college office.
Lou shrugged. “I watch the news, too.” He crouched next to Grant. The shooter was so close now they could smell acrid gunpowder seeping in under the closed office door. Lou reached out, put a hand on Grant’s shoulder and nodded. Despite his outward calm, the old man’s hand trembled as he pointed the gun at the door. Without a sound, he thumbed back the hammer. Grant shook his head no, but Lou paid him no mind. For one surreal moment, Grant smelled peanut butter on his mentor’s breath and wondered whether he’d eaten it on toast or a whole grain muffin that morning.
Footsteps stopped outside the office door. Grant’s teeth chattered so loudly he was certain the shooter would hear. He glanced up at the door, his heart booming in his chest. If it suddenly opened, he’d surely piss himself.
“Die, motherfuckers!” a youthful voice shouted. Someone kicked in the door of the office directly across the hall. Gunfire erupted. Glass shattered. Windows blew outward. Then came the screams as living, breathing human beings—people Grant knew and liked—were likely being erased like chalk from a blackboard.
“Full auto,” Lou whispered. “The little son of a bitch means business.”
Silence again. Grant wondered whether he should call 911, but didn’t want to speak and risk drawing the shooter’s attention. Better to let someone else do it; there were more cell phones in the community college than textbooks.
Suddenly, Lou stood. “Stay here.”
Grant looked up, alarmed. I should do it, he thought. I should take the little bastard out. I’m younger. Yet despite his intentions, he couldn’t move. His feet felt nailed to the floor.
As Grant struggled with his terror and guilt, Lou reached for the doorknob, revolver at the ready. “Forgive my numerous sins, Lord,” the old man whispered. He crossed himself, flung open the door, and stepped into the hallway. The shooter stood eight feet away, holding the assault rifle low on his right hip.
“Straight to Hell with you, young man,” Lou shouted. He closed one eye and pulled the trigger, and the old revolver nearly jumped out of his hand. The bullet missed its mark by a foot. Lou was lining up another shot when the shooter—a slender, dark-haired boy in jeans and a faded Pink Floyd T-shirt—grinned and raised his weapon.
“Fuck off, gramps.” The kid squeezed off a short burst, and Lou Beam’s head exploded, spraying his brains all over Grant, who cowered behind his friend. Lou was thrown backward by the impact and landed awkwardly on Grant, who scrambled to get out from under him, horrified by the blood, its warm wetness and metallic odor.
Grant shrieked and wiped at the gore covering his face. Oh dear God, some of it got in my mouth. The shooter smiled as his eyes locked on Grant. A wisp of smoke curled from the rifle’s ugly snout.
In a flash, a name came to Grant. “Justin?” Justin King was in his eight o’clock American History class, the class to which he was now late, the class that sent Stephanie for him.
Justin raised the weapon and pulled the trigger.
Without thinking, Grant pried the little revolver from Lou’s lifeless hand as the kid pulled another magazine from his waistband. Justin snapped the magazine into place and jacked a round home. Grant Bachman raised the gun, closed one eye, and pulled the trigger without hesitation. Three times he fired, and three times he hit his target. Two shots hit the body and the final one struck the boy in the mouth, whipping his head backward. Bone and brains splattered the far wall like shrapnel. Justin slid downward in slow motion, leaving a bloody exclamation mark on the white-tiled wall. He ended up in a sitting position. His left foot twitched once and fell still.
As Grant sank to his knees, his heart hammering in his chest, an image of his golden retriever Lucky flashed before his eyes.
When he was ten years old, his beloved pet fell ill. His father, Army Major Hugh Prescott Bachman, marched into Grant’s bedroom early one Saturday and shook him awake. Grant closed his eyes now, but the memory persisted with an eerie clarity. Father and son gathered Lucky from her deathbed and drove silently through a cold rain to the old bridge spanning the Boston River. Grant held Lucky close, her whole body shivering, and tried not to think about what was happening.
At the bridge, the major lashed the dog to the railing with her leash, reached into his jacket pocket, and withdrew his service pistol. He handed it to Grant.
“It’s your dog,” he said.
When Grant hesitated, sobbing uncontrollably, the major grabbed the gun and fired one quick shot into Lucky’s head. Grant screamed as his father cut the leash and dumped the dog’s corpse over the bridge and into the river. Though they never spoke of it again, Grant would never forget the rush of pure hatred he felt for his father that morning. Twenty-three years later, he could still see Lucky’s big trusting eyes looking up at him.
Much the same way Justin King’s dead eyes stared at him now.
Stop it, goddamn it. Focus. Grant dropped the revolver. Lou was lying next to him in a widening pool of blood. Grant crawled to the old man and cradled his ruined head in his arms. Hot tears filled Grant’s eyes and rolled down his cheeks. His dearest friend—the man who should have been his father—was dead. And it was his fault. Oh, God, Lou. I’m so sorry. It just happened so fast, so fucking fast.
He sat and sobbed for several seconds before a terrifying thought occurred to him: What if there’s another shooter? There were two at Columbine. And there was a lot of shooting and smoke earlier. He held his breath and listened. What if a second shooter was just biding his time, waiting for someone—someone like me, for instance—to break cover?
No. I will not give in to fear. Not again.
Grant gathered all of his strength, and stood on unsteady legs. His students needed him. All around him, the hallway was filled with groans and heavy footfalls as those still alive ran for their lives. His eyes fastened on the dead shooter. Jesus, the boy looked so young. Grant bent over and vomited. He retched so hard he feared he might bring up a major organ. Once finished, he wiped his mouth with a bloody sleeve, took one last look at Lou’s body, and bent down to retrieve the pistol. Taking a deep breath, he bolted down the hall toward his classroom.
He’d gone a dozen yards when he skidded and landed in a pool of blood just outside the women’s bathroom. A blonde girl was sprawled face-down just inches from him. One flip-flop still clung to her bare foot; the other had somehow landed several feet away. Half of the girl’s head was missing. Grant screamed and sat up. For one awful moment, his hand stuck to the tiled floor. Pretty little Stephanie’s blood was turning tacky.
Frantic now, Grant regained his footing and ran as fast as he could. He passed several more dead students and was about to leap a body lying in the middle of the smoky hallway when it opened its eyes, reached out and grabbed his ankle. He stopped mid stride and looked down. It wasn’t a body, of course, it was an injured boy. Grant clutched at his chest, waiting for the gunshot that would surely end his life. It was foolish to stop, he knew, especially out in the open. Anyone could pop out from one of the classroom doors and open fire again. He needed to keep moving. Instead, he looked at the boy, who was young, no more than nineteen, and bleeding badly.
“Help me,” the boy whispered. “Please.”
Grant dropped Lou’s pistol and grabbed the boy’s T-shirt. He ripped off a long piece and wrapped it tightly around the boy’s thigh, above the wound. His hands shook so badly it took three tries to get it properly knotted. When he finished, he patted the boy’s shoulder. At least the kid wouldn’t bleed to death.
“Just hold tight.” Grant grabbed the gun and stood. “I’ll send someone back for you. I promise.”
He ran on, holding the gun in front of him with both hands. His eyes darted from side to side, watching for movement. The hallway was silent except for the occasional sobs of the survivors. As he approached Room 110—his classroom—he slowed. The door was open.
Gathering his courage, Grant peeked in. Desks were overturned. Papers and books were scattered across the black-and-white tiled floor. At the rear of the room, behind the desk he should have been occupying, a whiteboard ran the width of the room. It was now zigzagged with bullet wounds. A large map of the United States hung half-peeled off the wall—a splattering of holes encircled Chicago.
The room stank of gunpowder and the coppery smell of fresh blood. Three students lay on the floor, a boy and two girls. Two of the big crank-out windows were opened. The other students must have gotten out that way.
He entered the room, still gripping the gun in both hands, and approached the first student—a girl whose name, he thought, was Britney. She’d been shot once in the stomach. Without much hope, he dropped to his haunches and felt for a pulse. Finding none, he moved on to the next, a boy whose name he couldn’t remember. He’d been shot in the head. Grant didn’t bother checking for a pulse.
He paused, still on his knees, and looked in disbelief at his blood-stained hands. At that moment, the horror of it all swam into focus. The very thought of what he had just witnessed, what he had just done (and perhaps more importantly, what he hadn’t done), caused him to moan aloud. His eyes dropped to the dead students, the image searing itself into his brain. My God, they’re children. They had parents and dreams and secrets and pets. Five minutes earlier, they had their whole lives in front of them. Now they were corpses lying on the floor of a classroom in which they had presumed they were safe. He thought of his own daughters, and a black rage rose up inside of him. Why does this keep fucking happening? He threw back his head and screamed until his throat was raw—a primal, guttural sound.
He rubbed his face, still trying to wipe away Lou’s brains, and realized his lips were numb. His head felt light and his mouth was filling with warm saliva. Shit. He was going to pass out. He closed his eyes and forced himself to take several deep breaths. After a few bad moments, he felt his heartbeat slow, although the dark rage remained. He wiped the tears from his eyes and crawled toward the next girl, who laid face-down in a pool of blood. He was about to roll her over when he felt rather than saw movement to his left, near the coat closet.
“No,” a shrill voice screamed. A girl bolted from her hiding spot and threw herself at Grant. “Get out! Get out!” Tiny fists struck his face and chest. Without thinking, he shoved her as hard as he could, and she tumbled backward and fell over a desk. He instinctively raised Lou’s pistol, but the girl was unarmed and clearly terrified.
“Jesus.” Grant lowered the gun. “I almost killed you.”
“No,” she sobbed, looking up at him with huge eyes. “No.”
Her name was Annie DeWitt. He remembered her because she’d stayed after class on Friday—after a lengthy discussion on music history during the hour—and they’d discussed whether John Lennon or Paul McCartney was the true genius behind the Beatles, and how rap all but destroyed rock and roll. He’d been impressed by her fiery passion and intellect. She brought a battered black notebook to each class the previous week. The notebook was filled margin-to-margin with tiny, spidery handwriting. He watched her hunch over it, scribbling furiously, her brow crinkled in total concentration. He was fairly certain she wasn’t taking lecture notes. Annie told him on Friday that she was going to be famous someday, that she had a plan, a dream.
He looked at her now, so pale and trembling—so alive—and nearly swooned with joy. One of his students survived. He wasn’t sure about the others, but he was sure of her. He had a crazy urge to kiss her, to hug her, to sweep her in his arms and dance around the ruined classroom. She was frightened, her leg was smeared with blood, and her dress was dirty. But goddamn it, she was alive.
“Annie?” He leaned down to her and she shrank back in fear.
“Don’t touch me,” she whispered.
“Look, you’re in shock. It’s me, Mr. Bachman. It’s going to be okay now. It’s over.”
“It’s over?” Her eyes were wide. “What’s over?”
“The shooting. The bad guy is dead.”
She stared at him. Her whole body was shaking. “He’s dead?”
“Yes. I … I killed him.” Had he? Had he really just killed one of his own students? They looked at each other for several seconds before she leapt at him again. This time, he opened his arms and accepted her.
“Oh, God,” she said, her voice muffled by his shoulder.
“Shhh.” He stroked her hair. “It’s okay now. I promise.” They slid down to the floor and held each other, both of them sobbing. The half-peeled map slowly slid to the floor, where it landed with a soft whoosh.