By A.C. Koch
Everyone hit the deck as soon as the shooting started out in the hall. Claire had just started class and the kids were getting settled: dropping their homework in the basket, digging their pens and notebooks out of their backpacks, sneaking an earbud into one ear, giving the bro-nod to their friends across the room. And then: crack-crack-crack! They all instinctively knew what the sound was: percussive hammer blows that weren't firecrackers, weren't backfires. "Gunshots," she heard herself say. "Everybody under your desks. Now!"
For the first time in her teaching career, all her tenth-graders did exactly as they were told without hesitation. Footsteps pounded down the hallway. She was about to crawl over to the door to lock it when a pair of legs in black fatigues with combat boots walked into the room and fired off several shots. Crack-crack-crack! Screams went up. Something shattered at the back of the room. Books clattered onto the floor.
Claire froze where she was halfway under the front table. She kept her mouth shut, and willed her students to do the same.
Under the first desk, about five feet away, her student William stared straight at her with terrified eyes. She didn't dare say anything to him but she met his gaze and tried to signal him with her mind. It's okay, William, we'll just lie here quietly and wait it out. We'll be okay.
His answer was immediate. No, we won't. His mouth hadn't moved and his expression hadn't changed, but the thought had transmitted itself directly into her brain.
Shhh, William. We'll be okay. We've trained for this.
Are you fucking stupid? Look what's happening!
This was, sadly, not out of character for her interactions with William. He'd already gotten himself suspended twice in her class for profanity and defiance, and he was pulling a solid F. It could have been worse, in fact. Just a couple of weeks ago he'd turned in a literary analysis essay on The Great Gatsby which was clearly plagiarized. She'd given him a stern warning but hadn't reported the infraction to the administration; she'd been encouraged by the fact that he'd turned in anything at all. There was surely a good kid deep inside that prickly demeanor.
Meanwhile, it sounded like the gunman had left the room and gone back down the hallway. All the students, twenty-three of them, maintained their tense silence as they lay on their bellies under their desks. The whole school seemed unnaturally quiet now, except for one pair of boot steps clomping down the hall. Crunching over glass.
And still William fixed her with his wide-eyed stare.
See, William? He's going down the hall. It's going to be okay.
This blows. I can't believe I spent the last night of my life writing a stupid essay for this class.
That took her aback. You wrote your essay? On the role of the narrator in modern American fiction?
Yeah. My mom said I had to pass this class or I'd have to do summer school.
Well, I guess that's as good a motivator as any.
Fuck that. I should've just played Fallout and enjoyed myself. What a fucking waste!
Now William, don't think like that. If you'll work with me, we can make sure your summer is free and clear.
Yeah right, bitch. There's not going to be any summer now.
That felt like a slap across the face. If a situation like this couldn't snap William out of his bad attitude, what in the world would?
They went on staring at each other. Some time later a clatter of more boots entered the room along with the crackle of police radios.
"Victims in here," someone said. Another voice announced to the room, "If you're uninjured, please stand and follow Officer Daugherty to the gym. If you need assistance, stay where you are."
Students began rising with exclamations of relief and horror and despair. Several of them passed by the front table, looking down at her with stricken expressions or sobbing openly. Their exodus from the room sounded like a small stampede.
William remained where he was, eyes locked on hers. She found she couldn't move.
"This one was the teacher," someone said. She thought it was quite rude to refer to her in the past tense but she wasn't able to say anything. Someone knelt down next to William and checked for his pulse. Then they passed a hand over his face and closed his eyes.
Oh fuck, she thought. Oh no oh no oh no.
Now do you see why I'm pissed about that stupid essay? She could still hear his voice but it was getting farther away. Meanwhile, a hand passed over her own face and closed her eyes. She looked down on the scene as if from above. Her body looked unnatural, lying in a small pool of brilliant red. Someone was taking pictures with a flash.
She rose upwards. In the basket next to her desk she saw the pile of papers that had just been turned in at the start of class. Sure enough, William's was right on top of the pile. Oh William. I'm so glad you turned it in. You've got so much potential, if only you can figure out how to use it!
* * *
A.C. Koch's work has been published in literary journals such as F(r)iction, Infinite Worlds, Exquisite Corpse and the Columbia Journal. His story "Young Americans" was recently awarded first place in the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction at Philadelphia Stories. He lives in Denver, Colorado, where he teaches linguistics at the graduate level and makes music with Firstimers, a power-pop ensemble.