Surviving the Fall

SURVIVING THE FALL: Chapter Two

SURVIVING THE FALL

Chapter 2

                       

Irene and her husband Tom sat in bed. She wrote in her journal; he scrolled through messages on his smartphone.[1]  The news played on TV in the background. As she had every night for the last couple of weeks, Irene drank a nightcap of rum and coke. Tom glanced at her shaking hand but said nothing. He didn’t have to. She could almost hear him making yet another comment about how she used to be a teetotaler.

Irene finished her journal entry, which was the only suggestion the therapist had made that she found therapeutic. She took another swig of her drink and stared at the imagines of armed men exchanging gunfire on the TV. Tom picked up the remote and went to change the channel.

She raised a hand to stop him. “It’s okay. This isn’t the kind of stuff that bothers me.”

Tom looked at her skeptically but set the remote down. Soldiers battled among ruined buildings and broken bodies. Irene picked up the remote and turned up the volume to listen to the breaking news about an apparent failed coup in North Korea. Every once in a while the camera captured the image of a civilian, or an entire family, trying to flee out of harm’s way. Sometimes they made it. Sometimes, they didn’t. Neither side seemed to care.

“It all seems so distant on that little screen, doesn’t it? Way too distant to be real,” Irene remarked.

Tom looked up from his phone, puzzled by her comment. “Yeah, I guess.”

 “I mean. I feel sorry for those people. But …I don’t know…It just doesn’t have any kind of impact.”

“Well, it’s not like there’s anything we can do about it. And it was bound to happen sooner or later. My grandpa always said we left an unsustainable situation over there when we left the country split in two.”

“Your mom always said he was pretty traumatized by his time in Korea. But he never wanted to talk about …” Irene’s voice trailed off.

The image suddenly became all too real--all too familiar. The camera focused on an old Korean woman clutching the limp body of a boy in her arms as she rocked back and forth wailing.

 Irene let out an involuntary moan. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled, sending shivers through her entire body. Here was the face of her nightmares. She half expected the age-engraved Asian woman to transform into her own mother.

The news correspondent estimated that the death toll was already in the hundreds, if not thousands as the purge continued. The brave soul who’d taken the video had to retreat under fire so the coverage cut back to the studio. The network anchor announced that the United Nations was convening in an emergency session to discuss the situation and its implications for South Korea’s safety.

 Irene knew there would be no peaceful resolution to this. Things would only escalate from here. The nightmares hadn’t been a product of her over-active imagination. They’d been a sign of things to come. There was no denying it now. The world was really about to end.

Tom scrolled through his smartphone checking the headlines. “North Korea’s threatening to invade South Korea. Their blaming the U.S. and them for this mess. They say they’ll launch a nuke at Seoul if we don’t withdraw and surrender the country to them.”

“Dang, this is going to get ugly,” Irene said, unsure how to bring up the subject of her apocalyptic nightmares.  He knew she’d been having bad dreams almost every night, but she’d allowed him to assume they were flashbacks from the shooting. “What if North Korea actually does it?” she blurted.

“Then we blow them all to hell. They have what? Maybe a handful of bombs and no way to get them all the way over here, yet. It’s probably better this happens now before they manage to make more reliable missiles.”

Irene felt irritated at his war mongering and ignorance. He was letting the testosterone do the talking again. However, she didn’t bother telling him the rogue nation had more than twenty nuclear bombs and they’d recently tested missiles that could in fact reach the U.S. She had another, more important, point to make; “I’m more worried about what happens if China gets involved.”

Tom eyes narrowed and expression darkened. “Good God Irene,” he said in exasperation. “Like we don’t have enough to worry about. Don’t go looking for--”

She flipped over so her back was to him and let out a loud angry huff.

He took a long breath of his own before continuing, “Let’s try to focus on the stuff we have to deal with, not stuff we can’t do anything about. Besides, if an all-out nuclear war does happen, we won’t be around long enough to worry about it. Not with Beale Air Force Base less than fifty miles away.”

She turned over to face him, shocked at his matter-of-fact proclamation of doom. With large, frightened doe eyes, she asked, “You really think that’d be it.”

“They don’t call it MAD for nothing. Mutually Assured Destruction.” He realized just how cold he sounded and softened his tone. “Look, let’s just hope it doesn’t come to that. That’s really all we can do.”

Irene took another sip of her drink while the woman co-anchor announced that the president was meeting with key members of his Cabinet. “Word from the White House Press Secretary is that they are considering all possible options, but that our first priority is to the U.S. citizens in South Korea as well as protecting our bases in Seoul. Some sources say that an evacuation of the U.S. Embassies as well as the consulate in Busan is already underway.”

Irene wanted to continue their conversation. Maybe even tell him about the dreams. But Tom went back to swiping his phone and responding to his latest texts.[2] He completely ignored her and the newswoman speaking with professional detachment. Pressure built up inside Irene’s mind. An irresistible urge to do something…anything. “Do you think we should go away?” she asked Tom, finally giving voice to her thoughts. “If this is going to turn into World War III, maybe we should go somewhere safer.”

Tom let out an exasperated sigh. Irene couldn’t tell if he was annoyed at her words or the fact that she was interrupting his phone time, which he seemed as dependent on as she was her rum and coke. Then he set down the phone and regarded her with that “are you nuts?” expression that always made her feel so stupid. She was glad she hadn’t told him about the nightmares. The last thing she needed was him thinking she’d finally gone completely insane.

He spoke in that slow, patronizing tone he used with Zack, or with her, when he was really annoyed. “And go where, Irene? There’s no safe place to go during a nuclear war.”

She concentrated on getting her thoughts out clearly and without the nervous stammer she’d developed after the shooting. “How ‘bout going to your family’s place in Washington? Or even just up to Foresthill and staying with your aunt and your brother? It’s bound to be safer than being so close to Beale or even a state capital, like Sacramento.”

He folded his arms and pretended to consider the idea, but his reply made proved it had just been for show.  “For how long? Say the worst is going to happen…When? Will it happen tomorrow or next year? Or the year after that. There’s no way to tell. And we can’t just put our lives on hold waiting to see if the shit’s really going to hit the fan. Either it’s going to happen or it’s not. There’s no point in worrying about it.”

As her expression became even more upset, he tried reasoning with her. His tone became almost pleading. “Look, it’s not like I really believe it’s going to happen. Everyone knows that no one wins in an all-out nuclear war. No one’s stupid enough, or crazy enough, to start one.”

“Not even Kim Jong-un?”

“Okay, that man might be bat-shit crazy. But even if he’s that deluded, the rest of his country isn’t. They won’t commit mass suicide by attacking the U.S. directly. They just want South Korea. Their economy is so messed up, they need the resources. That’s it. We’ll make some kind of deal with them. Probably pay them off, and that will be it.”

With that, he picked up his phone again and started typing away, obviously signaling the conversation was over. When she stared at him with an “oh no you didn’t” expression, he flopped over on his side so his back was now to her.

She wanted to grab that damn phone and chuck it out the window. But that wasn’t likely to make him more inclined to listen to her. And she couldn’t let this go. If it were only their lives at stake, she might not have cared so much. They could decide to let themselves die if the worst happened. However, they had a ten year old son to think about. For him, they needed to find some way of bettering their chances of survival. “Well, we at least need a plan.”

He didn’t even bother looking up from his phone. “We have one: say a prayer and go toward the light,” he muttered.

She ignored his flippant comment, a vestige from the dark humor they used to share when they both worked in emergency services. Instead, she let herself think out loud. “There are some pretty decent sized caves on the other side of the American River. We could reach them fairly fast.”

Tom rolled over, his “are you nuts” expression back. “Irene, what in God’s name are you saying? You want us to pack up Zack and go become survivalists or something?” When she didn’t deny it, he rolled his eyes and snorted in disgust. “Damn, you really have gone off the deep end, haven’t you?”    

Realizing that he might have just hit on the truth, his entire demeanor changed. “Oh God, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. But I do think you’d better call that shrink you’ve been seeing. Maybe call into work and tell them you’re not ready to go back just yet. They’ll understand. Hell, they’d probably be relieved. Maybe they’d even be willing to extend your paid leave. If not, we can afford to go without your income for a while.”

Here she was telling him the end of the world was coming, and all he cared about was money. She shouldn’t be surprised, she told herself. Everything with Tom was either about money, things, or appearances. People came in a distant fourth. That was why she’d been contemplating a divorce before the shooting. Of course, she hadn’t been in any condition to make such a huge decision afterwards. She could barely decide what to make for dinner. And now with World War III looming, it was no time to be splitting the family up.

She suppressed a derisive snort of laughter as she thought about when they’d first met. She’d been so flattered that this gorgeous, blond haired, blue eyed firefighter was interested in her. She was an honor student, majoring in journalism, and working her way through college as an EMT. While she was by no means homely, her plain brown hair and eyes, along with her very average figure, never attracted much attention from the guys. To be honest, she’d never bothered putting much effort into her looks.

After just a few weeks of dating Tom, she’d bleached her hair and started wearing makeup every day and not just on special occasions. Much to her dismay, she let her whole world come to revolve around Tom and what he thought of her. She soon found, however, the more desperately she tried to please him, the more indifferent and critical he became toward her. Now, twelve years later, he still acted like she should be grateful that he put up with her at all.     

“Thanks for the concern. I’m fine.” She told herself that the situation was too important to get sidetracked by her hurt feelings. “And my mental state doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not we’re facing World War III.” With all the hesitance of someone handling a venomous snake, she suggested, “I think you’re right. There’s no way to know when things might escalate and by the time they do it’ll be too late to go anywhere. So maybe we should build a bomb shelter. That way--”

“Shhh.” He raised a hand to silence her then looked over at his vibrating phone. He barely glanced at her before reaching for it.

“Tom,” she warned.

He hit the answer button and started talking to one of the guys from the fire department as if she weren’t even in the room.

The news cut to some military expert drawing her attention.  He started explaining that America’s defenses where such that even though North Korea did indeed have missiles that could carry a nuclear payload to the U.S. mainland the military could shoot them down before they left Korean airspace.

“No way,” Tom scoffed, then said into the phone, “Oh no not you. Just something stupid on the T.V.   His brows furrowed. With the deep creases on his forehead and across the bridge of his nose, he looked his 33 years instead of the 23 he was so often mistaken for. “Ah I got to go. See you tomorrow.”

As soon as he was off the phone, Irene asked, “So you agree with me: we couldn’t possibly shoot Korea’s bombs down that fast?”

 “Not unless we’re planning on hitting them before they even launch,” he said more to himself than to her.

“You mean a preemptive strike?” Irene asked.

He looked over at her. The crease in his brow deepening even further, a clear indication of his worry. “It makes sense. Hit them before they can get their missiles in the air. I’m sure we can tell when they’re about to launch.”

“Well, just in case, I really think we ought to build a bomb shelter.”

Tom put a hand to his forehead and said with a forlorn laugh that had nothing to do with humor, “Please tell me you’re kidding. That’s like the stupidest thing you’ve ever said. Try to be reasonable. With the lawsuit and everything, we’ve got freaking enough to deal with. I know you’re having a hard time. But don’t you think that maybe you’re overreacting? Maybe it’s your mind’s way of dealing with all the stress you’re under. Have you been taking your meds?”

“I am not insane,” Irene said in a slow angry snarl. “It doesn’t take a freaking genius to figure out that all it’d take is one country launching their bombs--in fact you said it yourself.  We’re facing a nuclear holocaust; I don’t think building a bomb shelter is such an unreasonable thing to ask.”

“What I said was if it did happen, we might as well just kiss our asses good-bye.”

Irene tried to come up with a response but failed. Even her average IQ didn’t stop her from becoming a hysterical, stuttering stereotypical female when it came to talking to her own husband. She often wondered what had happened to the woman who’d proudly graduated with a master’s degree near the top of the class.

She got up, dragging her favorite quilt behind her, and went to go sleep in the guest room.

 

# # #

From the Journal of Irene Wallace

Wednesday, December 11th  (62 hours before the blast)

 

I’m documenting my nightmares in as much detail as possible in case there’s some clues we can use. Plus maybe I can prove to myself they really are premonitions.

The dream changed last night. This time it started with hundreds of Asian men, women, and children rallying around two flags I don’t recognize. One had a red clover shape in the middle and a thick green stripe on each side. The other had a green leaf-like shape between the thick green stripes.

Then, as if they were acting out the barricade scene from Les Misérables,[3] they all start dying in slow motion.

Next the dream jumped to my mom. She’s weeping over Zack’s dead body. Me and Tom and a huge group of our friends and family surround her. Then we’re all suddenly at the local park having a party. Zack’s running around with his friends and the neighbor’s kid.  

A blinding flash of light hits and we all began melting. At first, horrific screams come from the figures as their flesh falls away. Then there’s nothing but silence as a mushroom cloud fills the background.

As if to make sure I get the point, Alex and the three innocent students who died appear. Their ghostly faces are like after images burned into my retinas. Finally Billy and Todd come with their guns. They stroll into the park shooting silhouetted figures as they try to flee.  

I don’t know how else to interpret this except something, or someone, is telling me I need to do something more this time. Since I’m not sure I can believe in a God who let’s this kind of thing happen, maybe it’s all my subconscious putting the pieces together.

# # #

Irene woke needing to vomit. She didn’t bother trying to go back to sleep after that. She logged her dream in her journal, and then called an old friend from college who now worked as an investigative reporter out of CNN’s New York Office. The three hour time difference would make it 9:00 AM on the east coast. She just prayed he still had the same cell phone number. She practiced what to say in her head a few times before calling.

Ryan picked up the line, sounding like he’d had a few too many cups of coffee. “Irene! Hi! Long time no see! How’s domestic life? How’s the baby?”

“That ‘baby’ is ten years old now.”

“It’s been that long? Damn. How are you holding up?”

He’d sent her flowers when she’d been in the hospital recovering from the gun shot. She’d been so grateful that he’d respected their friendship enough not to use it to get an exclusive. She was pretty sure, even though he was alluding to it now, it was out of genuine concern, not as a reporter. And part of her wanted to tell him all about the hell she’d been through--was still going through.

He’d been her “safe, protective, gay guy friend,” during their college days. She’d shared everything with him back then, and he’d always listened so patiently to her throughout her tumultuous courtship with Tom. While she regretted that they’d drifted apart, she decided now wasn’t the time for catching up. She needed to get right to the point. “I’m fine. Uh, hey Ryan, actually the reason I called is: I need a favor.”

“What’s that?”

“I need you to tell me if the reports about Korea are as watered down as I think they are.”

“Only if you think they’re as watered down as those cheap drinks we used to get at Mick’s Bar,” he answered.  “And it’s getting worse. The networks are getting some heavy pressure from Washington to ‘stop spreading panic.’”

Though they’d been the best of buddies back in college, his frankness caught Irene off guard. She jumped down her list of questions to the bottom-line. “So what’s your guess? Are we heading for war? And will North Korea hit the main land with nuclear bombs if we do?”

“Oh, North Korea has more of a nuclear arsenal than anyone wants to admit. They could definitely do some damage. And who knows where they’ll strike. Will they limit themselves to South Korea and Japan or try to give us the worst bloody nose they can before we totally annihilate them? There’s just no way to tell until they launch. It’d be suicide, and they know it. But I’m not sure their leaders care.”

He paused to let his words sink in before going on and Irene knew to wait. She heard him take a deep breath before plunging on. “What we’re not supposed to tell anyone is just how involved China has become.”

“I kind of guessed China would be involved. That’s not exactly a secret.”

“Let me rephrase. How much of a threat China’s become. North Korea’s claiming both the U.S. and South Korea were behind the coup. They say they have proof that it was all a plot to overthrow their government. Apparently, a U.S. operative had the misfortune of getting caught during the assassination attempt. We still don’t have proof one way or the other as to whether it was successful. So we don’t know Kin Jun Un is alive or dead.”

“Which do you think is more likely to trigger a war? Him dead, or Kim Jung Un having survived an assassination attempt?” She started scribbling on her notepad, since there wasn’t anything to actually write down yet.      

“Damned if I know. Either way we’re pretty much screwed. China is reviewing the so-called proof. They’re royally pissed at the mere idea that we interfered with a sovereign nation, not to mention a neighboring country and ally to them. No matter how belligerent and how much provocation Un gave the U.S. China isn’t going to look the other way.”

Irene thought back to her dream. She had looked up the flag from the Les Misérables scene; it belonged to the movement calling for an independent Taiwan, free from China’s control. She tapped her pen trying to decide which of her questions to ask next. “So that the heck’s up with Taiwan?” she asked trying to sound casual as she went back to doodling.

“Funny you should ask,” he said with a wry smile in his voice. “There’s a group of Taiwanese people demonstrating and trying to declare their country’s independence. That’s nothing new,” he said giving voice to Irene’s reaction. “What is new is China is linking these protests to what happened in North Korea and is blaming us for inspiring a revolt. It looks like their preparing to crack down pretty hard on them in response. Taiwan’s begging us for help before this turns into another Tiananmen Square[4] or worse.”

Irene glanced down at her notepad not sure what to write. On the yellow sheet of lined paper was a casket, an outline of China and a mushroom cloud. She’d somehow sketched them without realizing what she was doing.

She felt her empty stomach start to heave. She swallowed back bile and took a sip of water. Her hand shook so bad, she spilt most of it down the front of her shirt. Precognitive nightmares were bad enough. This new ability might just push her over the edge--psychologically or even literally.

Then near the bottom of her list of things to ask she saw, “What to do?” From what she’d read, China had over 200 nukes. If this argument between the U.S. and China went nuclear, it could very well lead to the apocalypse of her nightmares.

Irene fought to keep her voice steady as she asked, “So what are you going to do?”

“Me? My job. Someone’s got to get the information out to the public. But I’ll tell you what: I’m getting my family the hell out of Dodge. I’m sending Bill and the kids up to his parent’s place in Indiana.”

For just a moment she set aside the impending of the end world. “Oh yeah. Thanks for the picture you sent with the flowers. I’m so glad you and Bill were finally able to adopt.”

“Thanks,” his voice was flat. “But right now, I almost wish we hadn’t. As I said, I’m sending them away to someplace that might be safer, but ...it’s not like there’s anyplace that won’t be affected by this.”

“Indiana, huh? You’re that worried?”

“Yeah, and I’ll tell you what else: my folks are installing a bomb shelter. The plan is if the U.S. does get blasted to hell, they can wait out the initial radiation in and then high tail it up to Canada.” He sounded only mildly frightened as he spoke, but his words shattered Irene’s hope that she’d been over reacting to the news because of her dreams. Ryan was a level-headed guy who had a talent for remaining calm under pressure.

As if he thought she might need further persuasion to act, he added, “A lot of people in the know--whether they’re in the media, military or high up government offices--are doing the same. They’re sending their families to safer locations and/or installing bomb shelters. Are you still living near Sacramento?”

It took her a second to realize he’d asked her a question. Her mind was still trying to adjust to this new reality. “Sac? Oh yeah,” she stammered. “We’re living an hour outside of Sac now, in Auburn.”

“Do you have anyone you can stay with? I’m not sure that’s far enough from anything to be safe.”

Irene rubbed her tired eyes, trying not to break down. She cleared her throat and said, “Yeah, we’ve got family up in the middle of nowhere, Washington. From what I could google[5]  they’re plenty far enough from any silos, or military bases.” Then it occurred to her to ask, “Are you going to get in trouble for telling me all this?”

“Are you kidding? Of course. But like I give a shit. A bunch of us are telling anyone who’ll listen. We may be limited on what we’re allowed to say on air, but they can’t stop us from speaking out on our own. In fact, we put together a website detailing what’s going on. It paints a pretty clear picture, so hopefully people will wake up and smell the coffee before it’s too late. Maybe if enough people get upset, we can prevent World War III. Otherwise, Irene, I swear we could be heading for Mad Max.[6]

He gave her the web address and they promised to stay in touch even though in her heart Irene knew this would be the last time they ever spoke.

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[1] Hand-held devices that were more like miniature computers than telephones.

[2] E-mail for the smartphones

[3] A popular play about the French revolution.

[4] In 1989 Chinese troops killed roughly a thousand people pro-democratic protesters

[5] A search engine for computers when they were all connected by the internet.

[6] A popular, very violent post-apocalyptic movie.

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SURVIVING THE FALL: Chapter One

                                                                                                            

Surviving the Fall

By

Rebecca Inch-Partridge

 

 

Chapter 1

“A lot has been said, discussed, debated and even argued about my mother. I thought it was time to tell her side of the story. So here is it, partly in her own words, so people know the truth and better understand really what happened.”-- Zack Wallace, 33 years After the Fall.   

 

Irene knew she needed to stop the gunmen before they reached the high school quad, but had no idea how. They strolled across the parking lot, rifles slung over their shoulders, as if they had all the time in the world. One glanced her way. Irene ducked down in her car, fumbling through her purse for her cell phone.

“What the hell?” a young male voice asked.

A short burst of automatic gunfire erupted.  Irene peeked through her windshield in time to see the young man in front of the gunmen go down.  She recognized him as one of her freshmen students.

Someone screamed. Without hesitation, the gunmen fired at the few students lingering around the entrance to the quad. Irene instinctively ducked back down. She punched 9-1-1 into her phone and hit the green button, then peeked again. The gunmen were entering the quad, shooting randomly side to side as they walked. She dropped her phone even as it rang. The police wouldn’t get there in time. 

The thirty-five-year-old history teacher forced herself to sit up enough to look through the steering wheel, put the car in gear, and went after the shooters. By this time, everyone had started running for cover.  If the two got to the gym, where over two hundred students were attending the pep rally, there’d be a slaughter.

 Irene stomped on the gas, drove over the curb, tore through the front flower bed and swerved around the large planter boxes. But now the shooters were deep inside the quad. There was a fence between her and them. She spotted that the gate to the right had been left unchained for the landscape crew. She plowed her 2010 Mustang through it. The loud crash distracted the gunmen for a moment.

 “9-1-1 what’s your emergency?” she heard a woman’s voice faintly from her phone, as it flew to the floor of the passenger side.

 “Help!” Irene screamed as bullets struck her vehicle. She dived sideways until she was almost lying in the passenger seat, but kept her hands clenched on the steering wheel, “John Adam’s High School! Two shooters!”

She realized she might hit innocent bystanders if she didn’t force herself to look where she was going. She raised her head just enough to see over the dash. One of the shooters was only a few yards away and running in long desperate strides away from her. He turned to bring the rifle to bear. Irene forced herself not to flinch as her car struck him.

She saw his shocked face all too clearly as his body slid up the hood and slammed into the windshield before he fell off to one side. She recognized her former student, Billy. She resisted the urge to hit the brakes as her Mustang thumped-bumped, thumped-bumped over him.

 Irene had known he’d be one of the shooters. Last year, she’d tried to reach out to him and his friend, Todd.  She had failed. And when it became clear their emotional issues were beyond the school’s ability to help, she’d worked to get them expelled. Now Billy and Todd had come back, and she had just killed one of them. And she’d probably have to kill Todd too.  Bile came up and threatened to gag her. She swallowed it back, knowing she'd do whatever she had to do to make him stop shooting people.

The petite redhead turned her Mustang toward Todd as he shouted Billy’s name in horror. He swung his rifle around and a steady stream of gunfire spattered her car. That suited Irene just fine.  At least he wasn’t shooting any more students.

The searing heat of pain streaked across her forehead. Blood ran into her eye. She pressed a hand to the spot to stem the flow. “I’ve been shot!” she yelled to the dispatcher on the other end of the phone.

Todd stopped shooting and dashed toward the gym. Irene turned the wheel and aimed her Mustang diagonally across the quad to cut him off. But he was almost there, and her car began to sputter and smoke.  She ignored whatever the dispatcher was saying and called out, “Several students are down. There’s only one gunman left, but he might make it to the gym. It’s full of students.”

Even as she said it, she realized she wouldn't get there in time. “Oh God! You have to hurry. Get someone to the gym! Tell them to evacuate the students through the south--"            

Alex Kevin, the science teacher, hurled his laptop bag at Todd. The tall, lanky teen turned and fired as Irene’s friend and colleague threw himself back behind a large, cement planter box. Todd turned back toward the gym, shooting at the students running toward the enormous brick building hoping to find cover. They hadn’t realized that the gym was his target.

Of course the site of where he’d been so humiliated was his goal. The guys in the locker room had thought it’d be funny to grab him from the showers and throw him out of the locker room and into the gym naked. Now dozens of innocent teens and staff where going to pay the ultimate price for that cruel prank.

Alex grabbed a backpack lying next to him, took out a large textbook, stood up and chucked it at Todd. The book struck him in the head. Todd changed direction. He came around the planter and shot Mr. Kevin’s point blank in the face. The text book that the teacher held in front of him did nothing to stop the bullet. Blood, bone and brain matter showered the concrete.

 “No!” Irene cried out, angry with herself and her dying car for not getting her there in time. But her friend’s sacrifice gave her enough time to catch up to Todd. Her car slammed into the dark haired teen and then the gymnasium wall, pinning him.

Irene’s head smacked the steering wheel. She stayed crouched down, panting and crying. She waited to see if he’d get off one last shot. When it didn’t come, she looked out the shattered remnants of her windshield at Todd’s mangled body.

He remained upright, squished against the brick façade from his hips down. His head turned slightly.  Blood gushed from his mouth. His eyes came to rest on Irene. He tried to lift his rifle, but his fingers lost their grip. The weapon fell to the pavement with a clatter that was loud over the silence that had descended upon the campus. Then his acne pocked face became slack. His body collapsed, folding onto her hood with a bang.

Irene jumped, screamed and bailed out of her wrecked Mustang. She kicked the gun out of her way and rushed to Todd. She searched his neck for a pulse. There was none. She collapsed against the bloody brick wall and slid down to a fetal position.

The analytical part of her brain knew there were a lot of wounded people who needed help. Even though she was just a history teacher now, in her younger days she’d been an EMT. The emergency responder still within her clicked over to mass casualty incident protocols. Her head resounded with the word TRIAGE.  The injured needed to be triaged.

But how could she possibly sort her students and colleagues by their degree of injuries? How could she declare anyone beyond help? But that was what had to happen so resources could be diverted to those who could still be saved.

She decided it was better than facing the fact that she’d just killed two teenage boys. Boys, she had given up on. She tried to get her legs under her and stand.

A fellow teacher came up and took her gently but firmly by the shoulders and pushed her back down. “No. Don’t get up. You’ve been shot.”

 “I’m fine. It’s superficial. Go help the others,” she insisted, even as blood ran into her eyes stinging like hell. She used her shirt to wipe it away, but more trickled down her forehead. In frustration she shoved her would-be helper back. “Get the walking wounded over to one side. Tell everyone else who’s not hurt to find someone bleeding and put direct pressure on the wounds.”

Reluctantly the teacher left her. Irene crawled over to Alex. Her friend had purposely distracted Todd so he wouldn’t make it to the gym. She reached out and groped around his neck searching for a pulse. She’d known there wouldn’t be one, but she still had to check. She knelt on the ground beside him helpless and defeated.

“Mrs. Wallace?” a terrified voice whispered from the other side of the planter. Irene looked up and leaned to one side to see two girls huddled together. “Is it over?” the first girl asked, still whispering.

“Yes, Shovannah. It’s over,” Irene managed to say. Sirens wailed from somewhere still distant, and she  wished to God the EMS personnel were already there. She couldn’t hold it together much longer.

The teens scrambled to her like preschoolers looking to the nearest adult for protection. They froze at the sight of Mr. Keven’s dead body. The second girl started heaving as the first one screamed hysterically.  For Irene, the world suddenly came back into focus. She heard the cries and pleas for help coming from all around her.

“Are either of you hurt?” she asked, once again in EMT mode.

“I twisted my ankle, and she hit her head pretty bad,” the Shovannah reported.

“Okay. But neither of you were shot? Right?”

They both shook their heads. “But you are. Your head.” Shovannah reached out as if to touch the wound on Irene’s forehead, but then withdrew her hand. Irene stripped off her sweater and tied it over her head like a bandana. At least it slowed the blood to a trickle. 

“And he was.” Shovannah pointed over her shoulder. Tommy sat curled up against the other side of the planter holding his gut. Irene crawled to him; she didn’t trust her legs to support her.

He was groaning with each breath and only semiconscious. Irene tried to do a primary survey: airway, breathing, circulation, she chanted to herself. Besides the obvious gut wound, he had bullet wounds to his shoulder thigh. Irene knew what she needed to do, but she alsoknew she was on the verge of passing out.

“Listen to me,” she ordered the frightened girls and injured senior, “I’m about to faint. You need to have him use his jacket as a bandage over the stomach wound and have him hold pressure as tight as he can. Then one of you find something to use on the shoulder to do the same thing. The other needs to take care of his thigh. When the paramedics get here. Make sure they know right away that Tommy’s here, and that he’s critical--"

 Her vision turned from white, to grey, to black. Irene surrendered to the darkness with a sense of relief. At least now she wouldn’t have to deal with anymore of the aftermath. Now she wouldn’t have to face what she’d done.

 

 

# # #

From the Journal of Irene Wallace

December 10th  (approximately 70 hours before the blast)

 

 I hate my life! And don’t know what to do about it. Actually that’s the worst part. There is nothing I can do! Damn, I wish I could go back and change what happened. I keep wondering if I could have done more. Wondering if things would have been different if I hadn’t helped get them expelled.

Since I can’t go back, sometimes I wish I’d died that day. Hell, my life is over anyways. What does it matter that I still breathe. Of course, I feel bad at having to kill those boys. But I feel a lot more guilt over all the innocent lives I couldn’t save. Then there are those still recovering from their wounds and those who will never fully recover.

Shit! Shit! Shit. After three months , all I can think about is that I should have been able to keep this from happening.

It’s not like I didn’t have fair warning. I’d been having those nightmares about a shooting for months before it happened. But dammit they were just bad dreams. It’s not like I’ve ever believed in premonitions. And once it became obvious that they didn’t want help, and that their families weren’t willing to do anything about the situation, I thought I was doing the right thing by getting them kicked out and sent over to continuation school. I thought that’d be the end of it.

When the nightmares didn’t stop, I should have known they’d come back. I should have believed them. But how crazy is that?

It doesn’t help that the media is constantly hounding me and my family “about the incident.” That’s what they call it, “the incident.” As if three students and two teachers weren’t murdered in cold blood. Like there aren’t over a dozen other people recovering from gunshot wounds.

Worse yet, the idiots can’t seem to decide whether to make me out to be a hero or a villain. At first, everyone was singing my praises as the person who saved countless lives. The person who kept this from becoming the next Columbine.[1] Then after the police officially cleared me, Todd and Billy’s family’s filed a freaking law suit.

Oh God I don’t know whether to hate them or feel sorry for them. But they’re making our lives Hell.  First it was their relentless media campaign and now this.

Okay, maybe I do hate them. I sure hate the media. Right now, I hate the world. Hell, I hate myself.

I think I’m going crazy. I can’t sleep and when I do there’s a new nightmare haunting me. Yeah, I’d expect to have bad dreams about “the incident,” but these don’t stop there. They’re not flashbacks of what happened. They start with that then morph into something else. They’re scaring the hell out of me!

In the new dreams, an old Asian woman is clutching the body of a child. Then she morphs into my mother, and she’s holding Zack in her arms and wailing. It’s not like any cry I’ve ever heard from her. Not even when my dad died. This is the scream of a banshee. Then everything changes to this idealistic image of my family at a park. But then there’s a mushroom cloud behind them and they melt in a fireball. These dreams of apocalyptic fire come nearly every night.

I feel like the damn characters in the movie Nightmare on Elm Street.[2] I never want to close my eyes and sleep again.

How the hell am I supposed to go on with my life?

I guess it’s not like I have any choice. For Zack and Tom I have to. Well, for Zack at least. Our son is the only bright spot left in my life. Things aren’t going so well between me and Tom right now. But for Zack I’ll find a way to keep going.

 I’m not sure if I’m really ready to go back to work tomorrow. Sure, the Freud[3]-in-a-box, quack that the school district made me see cleared me. But I didn’t tell him about the nightmares or the fact that I wish I’d been killed by that bullet. Instead, I’ve got this ugly red-line of a scar across my forehead that constantly reminds me of what happened and that that particular nightmare came true.

I haven’t told Tom about the new nightmares. Maybe I should, but I just can’t. Right now we have enough to deal with the civil suit and all. Of course I was named along with the entire school district, the High School and the principal.

We were assured that the school district’s lawyers would protect us, but Tom’s afraid they’ll throw me under the bus. So he hired an attorney to work with the district’s lawyer. It’s going to cost a fortune, but this lawyer assures us if the suit is ruled to be unfounded, Todd and Billy’s parents will have to pay all the legal fees. He even wants us to file a countersuit for defamation of character. The last thing  I want to do is drag this all out with a countersuit.

I’ve tried asking God what I’m supposed to do about these new nightmares, but so far he hasn’t answered.

Go to Chapter Two

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[1] One of the first mass shootings to take place at a High School.

[2] A popular horror movie from Before Fall.

[3]  A 19th century neurologist who founded psychoanalysis

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