When eighteen-year-old Mia survives a mass shooting at her high school she is left traumatised and confused. The shooter is her best friend. She attends college where she is the only witness to the murder of a man, who unknown to her, is working for a secret organisation to produce a genetically modified virus. As he dies he transfers the antidote to Mia, who now carries it in her bloodstream. Thus she finds herself the centre of a much deeper conspiracy where the two pivotal events in her life are not as far removed as she thought.
I’m crouched under my desk, knees to my chest, which is pointless since the desk offers no real protection. If he walks into this classroom he just has to look down and he’ll see me. I hear a whimpering to my right. It’s Madison Walters hiding under the desk diagonal to mine. She’s also hugging her knees, rocking backwards and forwards, as if she were the one with autism instead of me. Her white t-shirt is splattered with bright red blood. It’s not hers. I want to slap her and tell her to shut up, but I don’t. I just keep looking at the door. It can’t close properly because there’s an arm stuck in it. At first I can’t tell who it is because only the arm is jutting into our class, but then I notice the massive diamond on the hand and I realise it’s Ms Evans. She got engaged last week. I guess the wedding is off.
In the distance I hear the sound of screaming and gunshots. It’s a quick staccato that makes me jump. It sounds like a semi-automatic and I wonder how the hell Josh managed to get his hands on one of those. The screaming has stopped and a heavy silence stretches out. The silence is even more frightening than the shots, because now I have no idea where Josh is. I hold my breath, straining my ears. Outside the sky is a vivid blue, the colour of a Bahama sea, the noonday sun a bright yellow globe. Tomorrow was meant to be our graduation ceremony, but I guess that’s off too.
I hear footsteps coming down the corridor, slow and deliberate. I just know they belong to Josh. Please God don’t let him come in here. They stop outside our door and Madison gives a little shriek before she claps her hand across her own mouth. Shut up you dithering moron, screams the voice in my head.
The door is pushed open. I see his arm first, followed by his grubby white Converse sneakers as he steps over the body in the doorway. He has an assault rifle gripped loosely in his right hand. I feel the sweat run down my back. My eyes are glued to Josh. He looks the same as he did yesterday, when we hung out together shooting hoops at the park near my house. He’s even wearing the same black Santa Cruz t-shirt with a giant fist on the back. His eyes are glassy and vacant.
Madison squeals. Josh takes one step forward, points the gun in her direction and fires. The air is ripped apart by a series of deafening cracks. Madison’s body slumps forward, crimson liquid spreading from her, it slides across the floor in my direction. I scoot further back under my desk.
Josh sees me. In two strides he’s at my table. He bends down and grabs a fist full of my long blonde hair. I try to pull his hand off me but his grip is iron. He yanks my hair in his direction and my body has no choice but to follow, my sneakers skidding in Madison’s blood. He tosses the assault rifle to one side and pulls a handgun from behind his back. I’m fighting to stay calm, but the voice in my head is screaming, You’re gonna die! You’re gonna die!
Josh points the handgun at my head. He has a pained expression.
‘You don’t have to do this,’ I say. ‘I’m your best friend, Josh.’
‘I don’t wanna do this, Mia. I didn’t want any of this.’
‘It’s okay. You can stop. We’ll work things out.’
‘I can’t control myself.’ His face contorts into an ugly grimace. He lets go of my hair to slap at his forehead. I contemplate running, but I know I wouldn’t get far.
‘Josh, let me help you.’ I don’t know why I’m saying that. It just feels like the right thing to say. He stops slapping himself and seems to calm for a minute, but then his face contorts again.
‘You can’t help me. No one can.’
Before I have time to react, Josh puts the barrel to his temple. He fires. Blood and brains splatter. I squeeze my eyes shut. There’s a thud as his body crumples to the floor. When I ease my eyes open all I can do is stare at his corpse sprawled a few feet in front of me. A numbness is spreading over me.
There’s a thundering of booted feet and the door bursts open. A man in a black SWAT uniform with a bulletproof vest rushes in. He holds a gun in front of him as he makes a sweep of the room. His body is slightly crouched, every muscle tense and ready to spring. He looks at the bodies on the floor. His eyes dart to the handgun and assault rifle, they lie where they have fallen, to the right of me.
‘Down! On the ground. Now!’
I’m slow to react. He rushes over pushing me with rough hands until I’m on the floor. My arms are wrenched behind my back. Cable ties bite into my wrists. I hear him say, ‘Suspect apprehended. Situation contained. Stand down.’
He yanks me to my feet, pushing me towards the door. Out in the hallway students and teachers are starting to emerge from classrooms. Some wear a shell-shocked expression while others are wailing and crying. Principal Pearce appears in the company of another SWAT team member.
‘What are you doing?’ he says when he sees me. I open my mouth to reply before I realise he’s addressing the officer who’s manhandling me. ‘She’s not the shooter. It’s a male student.’
‘Let us handle this,’ says the officer, his tone terse.
‘I will not. She’s a student and just as traumatised as the rest of us. Listen to me. I’m the one who made the call and I can tell you now she is not the shooter.’
Principal Pearce turns to me and says, ‘Where’s Josh?’
‘Dead. He killed himself.’ The words stick in my mouth and I have to force them out. He demands the officer release me. When he does I rub my wrists. It’s then that the shaking starts. It begins in my fingertips and moves all the way up my arms, until I feel as if an internal earthquake is rocking my whole body. Principal Pearce puts his arm around my shoulders. I flinch at the sudden, unwanted contact.
‘It’s going to be alright, Mia. It’s all over now. You’re okay.’ But I’m not okay. I allow him to lead me by the elbow down the hallway.
‘Let’s get you checked by a medic,’ he says. We make our way outside. The bright sunlight is almost blinding. A police barricade is holding a crowd of people back, but they push forwards, straining at the boundaries as we emerge. I’m passed into the hands of a medic who tries to guide me towards where a number of ambulances have been parked. I shove him away.
‘I don’t need medical attention. I’m not hurt.’
He tries to pull me back, but I’m already putting some distance between us. Parents have broken through the barricade. They rush forward, spilling into the space between school and street. It’s chaotic as they search out their kids. There are more tears all round. The noise is giving me a headache and I press my hands over my ears.
I don’t bother looking for my grandma. She’ll be waiting for me at home, pacing a hole in the wooden floorboards of the kitchen. All at once I want nothing more than to be sitting at that kitchen table eating some of her scones. They’re the proper English ones her mother taught her to make with strawberry jelly and cream. I wipe my nose on the sleeve of my baby blue t-shirt and start walking, pushing past TV cameras and reporters. One reporter shoves a black padded microphone into my face and bombards me with questions. Her voice is irritating and high pitched. I can barely make sense of what she’s saying and look down to avoid eye contact. I’m not ready to talk to anyone about what just happened especially some journalist.
At last I’m free of the vultures. I walk down the street in the direction of home, picking up my pace the further I get from the school. Before I know it I’m sprinting, heaving in lungfuls of air as I push myself harder and harder. The sobs come then. They tear their way out of me and I let them.
In my mind I can see the smiling face of my friend who I’ve known since fifth grade. I see him laughing as I tell him the story of how my grandma thought Twitter was some special website where you could read all about different birds. I see the tears he tried to hide from me the day his brother told him he was shipping off to Afghanistan for his first tour of duty. I have no concept of how Josh could have made the choice to get a gun and go on a killing spree.
I turn up the drive that takes me home. The front door is flung open and Grandma scuttles across the freshly mown lawn on her skinny little bird legs. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her move that fast before. Her arms are stretched out to me and I go to her. She’s a good head shorter than me, but I somehow manage to rest my head on her shoulder and we cry together.
I’m not sure how long we stay like that, but after a while I feel the sun burning the back of my neck and I raise my head. Grandma’s mascara is all smudged down her cheeks in dark purple streaks. She takes my hand, bony fingers encasing mine and I let her lead me back into the house. Neither of us has said a word. That’s one thing I’ve always loved about Grandma. There are some nights we say hardly anything to each other. We just sit watching TV in comfortable silence. Sometimes Josh would come over and we’d watch old horror movies together, the three of us.
I sit on the couch in the living room and grandma goes into the kitchen. I can hear her rattling pots and pans. There’s the odd slamming of a drawer. Grandma thinks food is the answer to most of life’s heartaches. She made me the biggest lemon and poppy seed cake the day I heard my parents had been killed in a car accident. I was only ten at the time and lemon poppy seed was my favourite. I know Grandma meant it to cheer me up. Now even the thought of lemon and poppy seeds makes me want to vomit.
I rub my hand up and down the arm of the couch. The fabric is smooth and worn. I’ve always thought this couch was ugly with its old-fashioned floral design and faded pink back-ground, but it’s comfortable and its solid familiarity is what I need right now. I sit and stare out the window that overlooks our street and just think about Josh. It’s hard to believe he’s gone, and each time that thought comes, I force myself to imagine him barging through the door, basketball in hand telling me to get my ass out to the court so he can give me another whipping. He loved to trash talk, but I was the better player and beat him nine times out of ten.
I don’t have many friends . . . no, skip that, with Josh gone, I don’t have any friends. I start to sob again, but I don’t want Grandma to hear so I shove my fist into my mouth and take deep shuddering breaths through my nose. I start rocking backwards and forwards.
Renee immigrated to Melbourne from South Africa in 2003. She works as a paediatric speech pathologist with a special interest in autism spectrum disorders. Her time is divided between work, family and writing—for which she has an undeniable passion, along with travel and good Belgian Chocolate.
To contact the author email firstname.lastname@example.org or call +61 (0)403 955 124.