Surviving the Fall
by Rebecca Inch-Partridge
Irene woke mid-scream. She cut herself off and processed the rhythmic beep of a cardiac monitor. Everything was black. She reached for her face, and pulled a damp cloth from over her eyes. She could make out a blur of light and shadow, but it refused to come into focus. In her mind, she still saw the pock marked face of Todd smashed against the gymnasium wall—his green eyes vacant, and his mouth hanging slack with blood pouring from it.
“Irene? Oh thank God,” came the rich loving voice of her mother. “Take it easy. Try to relax. You’ve been through a lot. Can you see? They said a lot of blood ran into your eyes from the cut on your forehead.”
“The students!” she cried out. “Oh God! All those kids!”
“The doctors are doing everything they can for them.”
The blur surrounding her finally resolved into a curtain hanging around the bed, and her mother, Corinne, came into focus. Her raven-black hair had come loose from its customary bun and her brown eyes were bloodshot. The blood pressure cuff on Irene’s arm and the heart monitor making that irritating beep told her she was in the hospital, but gave no other clues as to what had happened after she’d passed out.
So many questions rushed into her mind, they clogged her throat. She gagged, sat up and heaved.
Corinne stood, grabbed a trashcan and thrust it under Irene’s chin before she vomited. She pulled back Irene’s thick red hair and held it out of the way. All the while, she continued speaking in her soft, soothing voice just as she had when she’d been Irene’s birthing coach a decade ago. “You’re going to be okay. Just breathe. In…Out…In… Out. Slow it down.”
Irene stopped retching and breathed in time to her mom’s prompts. Corrine set the trashcan aside and leaned over the bedside rail to gather her daughter into her arms. “That’s my girl. Oh Reenie, Hon, you had us so worried. The doctors said the CT scan was clear. They couldn’t figure out why you weren’t waking up.”
Corinne tensed and leaned down to look Irene in the eyes. Her expression changed from relief to pain. Unspent tears made her eyes glisten. “I’m not sure. Besides the shooters, at least two students and one teacher are dead.”
She said it in such a matter-of-fact way, it helped Irene hold herself together long enough to ask, “Alex… Mr. Kevins? Have you heard?”
“He’s in surgery, but Tom just texted me that he’s expected to make it.” Corinne took the trashcan and sat down, then eased Irene back to lay down. “Now you try to rest.”
At the mention of her husband Tom, Irene looked around like he might suddenly appear. To the as-yet-unasked question, Corinne explained, “He’s in the waiting room. They’re only letting one person back at a time, so we were taking turns. I should let him know you’re awake. He’ll be so relieved.”
Irene raised a hand. “Mom, before you go…” She tried to figure out how to put what she wanted to tell her mother into words. “There’s something I want to talk to you about,” she said, stalling. Her mom waited patiently, until she managed to choke out, “The nightmare.” If her mom was surprised by the subject, she gave no sign of it. She simply gave Irene the time she needed to be able to grapple her realization into words. “The nightmare I kept having about a shooting. It…It—”
“It came true,” Corinne finished for her when she couldn’t. “I know. I’m so sorry, Hon.”
Her words were like a floodgate opening a channel through which Irene’s thoughts could flow. “It’s crazy. It happened so close to how it went down in my dream. Not exactly, but close enough. Billy—Todd. I mean part of me must have known they’d come back. I should have done something.”
Corinne’s gentle expression hardened. “You did everything you could,” she said. “Irene, you listen to me: you saved a lot of lives today. You hang on to that.”
Irene felt irrational anger swelling inside her. “But I could have prevented it. Somehow I knew they’d come back after being expelled.”
Instead of telling her there was nothing she could have done, like most people would have, Corinne said, “Yes, you foresaw this. And because you were forewarned, you took action and prevented it from turning out any worse than it is. They say there were nearly 400 students in that gym. If the shooters had gotten there—”
“Foresaw? Forewarned?” Irene scoffed. “You make it sound like I’m some kind of a prophet.” She let out a bitter chuckle at the idea until her mom bit her lip and raised an eyebrow.
A nurse pulled the curtain open. “Oh good, Mrs. Wallace, you’re awake. How are you feeling?”
Irene wanted to shout, I just killed two disturbed teen boys after watching them shoot a bunch of students. How do you think I feel? But what came out was, “I’m not sure.”
Corinne approached the nurse. “I’m so glad you’re here. She threw up the second she came to. I’m worried. Could you please get the doctor?”
When her mom wrung her hands and gave somebody her puppy-dog eyes, few could argue with her. But Irene wasn’t sure if it’d work on the battle-hardened E.R. nurse. The woman put a reassuring hand on Corinne’s shoulder and said, “Of course. Just let me take down her vitals first.”
After pronouncing her pulse, respiratory rate and blood pressure within normal range, the nurse went to find the doctor. As soon as she was gone, Irene looked at her mom, “So where were we?”
“I was about to go get Tom.” Corinne pulled the curtain aside to leave.
“No. You were about to explain why you believe my dream was a premonition. I mean that’s pretty wild even for someone as religious as you.”
Corinne dropped the curtain and came back to Irene’s bedside, taking her hand. “This is something we need to discuss once you’ve had a chance to recover. Not now. Let me go tell Tom you’re awake and okay.”
Irene refused to release her hand when she tried to leave. “Discuss what? You don’t think my dreams were just my subconscious warning me that those boys were dangerous?”
Corinne took a deep breath. “It doesn’t matter what I believe. You dreamed that Billy and Todd would come back and do what they did.”
“Not exactly.” Irene put a hand to her forehead. She felt the bandage wrapped around her head for the first time. Her head started to throb. She wasn’t sure if touching the spot where she’d been grazed triggered the pain or if it was brought on by recalling the nightmare of Billy and Todd shooting up the gym.
A man in a sheriff’s uniform pushed the curtain aside, allowing the full white and super bright lighting of the E.R. to flood into Irene’s area where. Her lights had been set on low. She flinched and moved her hand down to cover her eyes. “I’m Deputy Elias with the Placer County Sheriff Department. I need to speak to Mrs. Wallace alone,” the burly man announced. As Corinne left, she pulled the curtain back closed.
“I’m sorry to bother you, ma’am,” the deputy said. Irene thought he sounded as sincere as a shark saying that fish aren’t food. He pulled a small notepad from his pocket. “I need you to tell me everything that happened.”
She was about to use the old cliche about it all happening so fast, but she could tell from the cold steel in his hazel eyes that he would just push until he got what he wanted. “I saw Billy Miller and Todd Davis take assault rifles out of the trunk of a car and open fire. I ran them over with my car.”
Deputy Elias’s eyes went wide and he was momentarily silent. He cleared his throat and quickly composed himself. “I’m going to need a bit more detail than that.”
Warm tears stung Irene’s eyes and ran down her face. He grabbed the little box of tissue from the bedside stand and thrust it at her. She pulled one out and wiped her eyes “What else do you want to know? They were shooting students.”
“You say they had assault rifles. How did you know that’s what they were?”
Of all the stupid questions! Her mind shouted in frustration. She started trembling as she answered. “I didn’t know until they opened fire. That sound…It went on forever.”
“Did you try to call 911?”
“There wasn’t time,” she said defensively. The trembling escalated into the shakes. He said something she didn’t catch, so she went on. “I tried to find my phone when I first saw them. But it was lost somewhere at the bottom of my purse.”
He let out a sigh and gave a nod. “All right. Did you attempt to talk to the subjects at any point?”
She couldn’t very well tell him that she tried that in one version of her nightmare and they’d shot her before massacring dozens of students. “I was too scared they’d kill me.” She acted like she was embarrassed instead of lying. “My first instinct was to get the hell out of there and call 911 as soon as I was safe. But once I had the car in gear, Billy shot Cody. Something possessed me. I just knew I had to stop Billy before he shot anyone else, so I hit him with my car.”
“Yes, Cody Farooq.” She found herself irritated that the deputy didn’t know the name of the first student shot. “He’s the brother of one of my students. Do you know if he made?”
“Please let me ask the questions. The Chaplin will be here to talk with you soon.” He made a note and then asked, “So you knew the first victim and responded to seeing him shot by running the shooter down. Is that your statement?”
“Irene?!” Tom’s voice carried from down the hall. Irene watched through a gap in the curtain as he dashed toward her. He stopped short once he got a good look at her. “Oh God! Irene, you look like shit! Are you okay? I mean, of course you’re not okay, but how bad do you hurt?”
Before Irene could answer, Tom turned on the Deputy. “Can’t you see how pale she is?” He spun back around to confront the nurse/escort who had rushed to catch up to him. It was the same older woman who’d come to check when Irene first woke up. “Where’s the doctor?” he asked her. “For God’s sake, my wife looks like she could pass out any second!”
Tom was in his Sacramento Fire Department uniform. Apparently, that plus the fact that his wife had been shot, made both the nurse and the deputy give him a little leeway. The nurse spoke slowly, clearly and compassionately. “Her vitals are stable, Mr. Wallace. All her wounds are superficial. And the concussion appears to be relatively minor. I let the doctor know she’s finally awake. He’ll be here as soon as he can. We have several other shooting victims we’re treating.”
Dually chastised, Tom’s shoulders slumped and he gave her a nod of understanding. “Of course. Sorry.” Then he faced the Deputy. Irene couldn’t tell if he read his name off his badge or knew him from work, but Tom spoke to the officer like college. “Deputy Elias, can your questions wait? My wife needs a break.”
She could see the deputy trying to figure out whether they’d met before, as if that were important under these circumstances. He looked ready to deny the request, but Tom added, “Just until the doctor gets a chance to evaluate her. I’m worried the blow to the head is worse than first suspected. She was out for hours. That’s not normal for a mild concussion. You can see for yourself all the head trauma she suffered.”
Deputy Elias relented with an audible huff. “Sure. There are some other witnesses I can interview. I’ll come back in a bit.”
Tom took the seat next to Irene’s bed. He ran a finger along her cheek, avoiding the bandages. “Oh man, it kills me to see you like this.”
“That bad, huh?” Irene asked, hoping for some reassurance and then hating herself for caring about anything as superficial as how she looked.
“Don’t worry. It’ll heal and if it leaves scars, there’s always cosmetic surgery.”
“I can’t believe we’re talking about my scars when people are dead,” she said. Before she’d met Tom, she’d never cared about her appearance. She was content being a plain Jane. But being with a guy the other firefighter nicknamed Ken-doll because of his resemblance to Barbie’s boyfriend had made her feel she needed to transform into a redheaded Cinderella. Now as she ran a hand along the edge of the bandage, she realized that a large swath of her dyed and permed hair had been shaved to expose the wound.
“Sorry,” he said softly. “That was my poor attempt at humor. I didn’t think you’d be up to talking about the fatalities, yet,”.
“I need to know,” she answered, looking at him with her brown eyes wet with tears.
“Two students and one teacher were DOA. A third student coded. They worked her for a hell of a long time, but couldn’t save her. Several serious, but not grave injuries. And lots of extremity wounds—not sure how bad.” He relayed the news like giving a report to the incident commander on scene.
“Do you know the names of any of the fatalities besides Cody Farooq?”
“How’d you know about Cody?” he asked.
“Doesn’t matter,” she told him, not wanting to go into what she’d witnessed and what she’d gathered from Deputy Elias. “Just tell me who’s dead.”
He hesitated then gave her the names. She didn’t know the other two students and was barely acquainted with the teacher. Relief washed over her. Then guilt. Why did knowing someone make them more valuable? They were still someone’s friends or family. Lots of people were experiencing the ultimate heartbreak because she hadn’t acted quickly enough. No, it wasn’t that she hadn’t killed Billy and Todd soon enough. It was that she had failed to prevent the shooting in the first place.
“Irene? Irene. Are you there? Come on. Irene!”
She didn’t know how long Tom had been calling her name before she’d come around. She also didn’t know where she’d been. But his hand was there, waving back and forth only inches from her face. She gasped and flinched away, startled.
“That’s it.” He got up. “I’m getting the damn doctor.”
She understood his words, but her only thought was of their son. “Zack. Oh God where’s Zack?”
“Easy,” he said, brushing her cheek again with one hand and squeezing her hand with the other. “I had the neighbors pick him up. He’s fine. They know not to have the T.V. or radio on.”
She was about to demand that Tom call so she could hear their son’s voice, but realized she wasn’t ready to answer all his questions about what happened. How could she explain to her ten-year-old that his mommy had been forced to kill?
# # #
Irene and Tom arrived home around midnight. They found Zack asleep on the couch with his head on Corinne’s lap. Irene’s mom set down her copy of The Book of Mormon she’d and greeted them in a soft whisper, “Glad your home.”
Zack came awake instantly. He spotted his mother and ran over to hug her without any of the usual hesitation. His barrage of questions came so fast it turned the throbbing in her head to painful pounding. It took both Tom and Corinne to get him to let her go and sit back down. They counted down from five together and Zack finished with: “If I want to learn, I must first listen.” Then he made the motion for zipping his lips.
Though exhausted beyond weariness, Tom and Irene sat up with their bright, and often too inquisitive boy, trying to answer his questions the best they could, keeping his age and Asperger’s in mind. Once he seemed to be sufficiently calmed, Corinne got up and collected her coat, hat and purse from the armor by the front door.
“Mom,” Irene called to her. “Why don’t you just stay here tonight? It’s so late.”
Tom added, “It’s a long drive. Better to be safe.”
“It’s only a half hour,” Corinne started to protest, but then took in their expressions and paused.
“Please, Grandma,” Zack put in for good measure. “If you stay, I’ll let you tuck me in.”
She hung her coat back on the hook.
“I’ll find some pajamas for you,” Irene said.
“Don’t go to any trouble on my account, Reenie. You’re the one that’s been hurt. I should be taking care of you, not the other way around.”
“I’ll get them for her,” Tom volunteered. “You go take a shower and go to bed. You need some sleep.”
As much as Irene needed to talk with her mom about the dreams, she was just too damn tired. She couldn’t think straight anymore; she certainly wasn’t up to logically discuss something as illogical as precognition with her religious mother. So, she dragged herself to the master bathroom. She would have rather dived face first into bed and just go to sleep. But Tom was right—Tom was always right—she needed to shower first. She’d worked on an ambulance during her college days and knew all too well about bacteria and viruses ERs harbored.
From nowhere a horrifying thought struck. What if I dream about the shooting?
Fear seized her and wouldn’t let go. She came to bed shaking, and for the first time in nearly a decade together she asked Tom to fix her a stiff drink. “Something to dull my nerves.” He grimaced, and she knew he was about to remind her that pain meds, concussions and alcohol don’t mix well. She thrust out a hand to stop him. “Please. Just one drink isn't going to kill me. And if anyone’s ever needed a drink, it’s me.”
He gave a grim nod and returned with a rum and coke. “You want to talk about it,” he asked, handing her the whiskey glass.
“Not tonight.” She took a sniff and recoiled against the smoky scent of the rum wafting from it.
“Well, do me a favor and go easy on that stuff,” he said, indicating the drink.
She ignored him, and chugged it as if downing a large dose of a nasty medication while he stood there, jaw dropping. “So much for being a teetotaler,” he finally said.
“I want to make sure to drown out any nightmares,” she said.
It didn’t work.
As soon as she fell asleep, she relived the shooting. Seeing Billy and Todd with rifles. Billy shoots Cody…running down Billy and Todd with her car. But the nightmare didn’t end there.
Suddenly, she saw an old Asian woman in what looked like a war zone. She clutched the body of a toddler. Then the image morphed into Corinne holding Zack’s limp body. She wailed like a banshee.
The dream shifted again. It showed Irene and her family enjoying a picnic lunch at their favorite park. A bright flash interrupted the idealistic scene. Then a mushroom cloud erupted in the distance. The silhouetted figures of Tom, Zack and Corinne melted in the fireball that followed. Irene heard their cries of anguish as they burned alive and then felt the heat melt her own skin.
Irene’s mind roused itself to the hazy gray state between sleep and wakefulness. She knew she had a choice: reject the message--pretend it wasn’t a warning--or accept the dream as a premonition of The Fall to come.
The choice was hers.