âCall Mommy, OK?' he said, handing Danny his cellphone. âShe's going to see this on TV and I want her to know that we're safe.'
Wednesday, September 22, 9:41
Frank jogged back toward the school. The dust was settling now and gradually the outline of the church building was reappearing. It looked from the street as if the entire front of the library had been demolished, as well as half of the front portico, and every single window was broken. Teachers and children were emerging from the side entrance, most of them bloodied and smothered in dust, all of them walking in a strange hypnotized shuffle, like hermits let out of a cave. Some of them were screaming a high, monotonous scream.
Several people were already sitting on the sidewalk, their faces scorched, their clothing ripped, their eyes staring in shock. A middle-aged woman came limping toward him, holding up her left arm. She wore a brown floral dress and her ginger hair was sticking up in the air as if she had been electrocuted. She had no left hand, only a stump with a white bone sticking out.
âI'm all right,' she reassured him as she approached. âDon't worry about me. See to the children.'
âHere, sit down,' he told her, and eased her on to the grass with her back against the wheel of a parked car. He yanked off his red and yellow necktie and twisted it around her forearm, knotting it tight. âJust stay here, ma'am; you're going to be OK. The paramedics will be here in a couple of minutes.'
âIt doesn't hurt, you know,' she said, looking at her wrist and turning it this way and that, as if it were quite a novelty. âIt doesn't hurt in the slightest.'
The wrought-iron school gates were still standing but they had been strangely twisted, as if he was looking at them through rippling water. Beside the gates, Mr Lomax's security booth was leaning at an angle, and all the glass had been blown out of the windows. Mr Lomax himself was sitting on his revolving chair, his beige uniform in black tatters, like crow's feathers. There was a large black lump by his left eye, and as Frank moved cautiously closer he realized that it was the head of a claw hammer. The shaft of the hammer had penetrated Mr Lomax's eye socket and it was only the hammer head that had prevented it from going clean through his skull and out the other side.
Frank stood by the security booth, breathless, swimmy-headed, feeling completely helpless. Teachers and children were still milling around outside the side entrance, and he desperately wanted to do something to help them, but he couldn't think what. As for the children lying in the parking lot, they were beyond anything but burial â and prayers.
âOh shit,' he said. âOh shit.' He turned away and his eyes suddenly became crowded with tears.
A girl appeared, close beside him. Her cropped brown hair was ashen with dust, and her jeans and her buttermilk-colored blouse were finely spattered with blood. She was wearing only one sandal.
âAre you OK?' she asked him. She reached out and gently touched his shoulder as if she were trying to make sure that he was real.
âWhat?' he said, frowning at her. He was still half deaf.
She leaned closer, holding his shoulder more firmly. âAre you OK?' she asked him. âYou're not hurt, are you?' She had a husky voice, like a heavy smoker.
âI have this ringing in my ears. But otherwise, no, I'm fine.'
âIt was a bomb,' she said.
âI know. But I don't know what to do. I called 911 but they said I had to keep away.' He cleared his throat and wiped his eyes with his fingers, leaving wet gray smears down his cheeks. âSomething about aÂ .Â .Â . secondary something. Device, bomb.'
âYou didn't have a child here, did you?' she asked him.
âMy son, he goes here. But we were held up in traffic. OtherwiseÂ .Â .Â . Jesus. But all those other kids. Oh, God. All those other kidsÂ .Â .Â .'
âI've lost somebody,' the girl told him. She said it in such a flat tone of voice that he blinked and focused on her more closely. Her irises were rinsed-out blue, almost colorless, and he had the strangest feeling that he had seen her before. More than that â that he actually
âI'm so sorry. Not your child, I hope?'
âNo, not a child. Somebody closer than that.'
He looked around. He could hear sirens whooping and racing toward them in the warm morning air. âListen, why don't you sit down?' he suggested.
âI'm OK. I just wanted to make sure that
âSure, I'm OK.'
Around the devastated school an unnatural quiet had descended. The yucca leaves were rustling down; the dust was settling. The children had stopped screaming and, although some of them were still sobbing, they were very muted, as if they were afraid to make too much noise.
Wednesday, September 22, 9:44
A police car slewed to a halt in front of the school, quickly followed by another, and another. Then two fire trucks came up the street, their lights flashing and their horns blaring like enraged elephants. Next came an ambulance, and two more squad cars, and another ambulance, and another fire truck, and three TV vans. In the space of a few minutes, Franklin Avenue was crowded with emergency vehicles and police and firemen running out hoses.
A police officer with a gingery sweeping-brush moustache came up to Frank and said, âDid you witness this, sir?'
âI was taking my boy to schoolÂ .Â .Â . We were late.'
âBut you saw what happened?'
âThere was a white panel vanÂ .Â .Â . it just exploded. I came back to help but I didn't know what to do.'
âOK, listen. Right now we have to get this situation under control, but we'll need to speak to you later. Give me your name and address and telephone number and somebody will be in touch with you later today.'
Frank reached into his billfold and took out his business card. âThis young lady saw what happened, too.'
The police officer looked around him, left, then right, and then he shrugged in bafflement. Frank turned, and was just in time to see the girl disappearing around the corner of Gardner Street.
âSheÂ .Â .Â . erÂ .Â .Â . she left. She's probably even more shocked than I am.'
âThat's OK, sir. Now, if you can leave the area and let the emergency people get on with what they have to do.'
âOf course, yes. Absolutely.'
Frank took one more look across at the school. Paramedics were already stepping through the litter of the fallen children, kneeling down now and again to check if any of them were still alive. The clock in the church steeple chimed the three-quarter hour. Usually this provoked a flutter of California quail, but this time there were none. They had all been frightened far away by the bomb blast.
Frank walked back to his car and climbed in. Danny was still sitting in the back seat, although he looked very pale. Delayed shock, thought Frank.
was suffering from shock, too, to the point where he found it difficult to make his lips speak any sense.
âDanny? Did you manage to talk to Mom?'
Danny didn't answer but simply stared at him. He had the strangest expression on his face, as if he were smiling at a private joke.
âDanny? Are you feeling OK?'
Still Danny didn't answer. Frank twisted round in his seat and said, âCome on, champ. I'll take you home and you can go to bed for the rest of the day.' Danny continued to stare at him. âDanny? Quit fooling around, Danny, this is too damn serious.'
He climbed out of the car again and opened Danny's door. He reached out for Danny's shoulder and as he did so the boy fell sideways on to the seat. The back of his blazer was soaked dark with blood.
Oh, God, no. Oh, God, not Danny. Frank lifted Danny up and cupped his face in both hands. He was still warm. But his eyes were unfocused and his mouth was hanging open and he wasn't breathing.
Frank felt as if his heart had dropped ten thousand feet. He scooped his hands under Danny's legs and lifted him awkwardly out of the car. There was blood everywhere, all over his shorts, all over his thighs, even on his sneakers.
âParamedic!' he screamed, running back along the sidewalk with Danny lolling in his arms. âFor Christ's sake, get me a paramedic!'
Wednesday, September 22, 6:47
At the hospital, the young medical examiner came out to the waiting area where Frank and Margot were sitting beside a parched yucca and a black youth with an interminable sniff. The medical examiner was soft-spoken, evasive, with hairy hands that crawled around his knees like two tame tarantulas.
âI've examined Danny and I've discovered what happened. An ordinary woodworking nail penetrated his middle back between his fifth and sixth ribs. It was traveling at considerable velocity, almost as fast as a bullet. If it had gone right through him, back to front, his chances of survival would have been very much higher. But, unfortunately, it struck his sternum â his breastbone â and was deflected back into his abdomen. It entered his liver at an oblique angle, causing considerable trauma.'
Margot covered her mouth with her hand and her eyes filled up with tears.
Frank said, âI want you to be honest with me, doctor.'
âIf I had realized that Danny was so badly injuredÂ .Â .Â . I mean, if I had taken him to the hospital immediately he was injuredÂ .Â .Â . do you think they could have saved him?'
The medical examiner glanced uneasily at Margot, and then turned back to Frank.
âIn my opinion, yes. But that's only my opinion.'
e sat on the couch in front of the television and watched the bombing on the news, again and again. Margot had taken a wicker chair to the conservatory window and sat staring out at the red and yellow swing set in the yard. He didn't know whether she was listening to the television or not, or whether she was even aware that he was still sitting there. She was smoking for the first time in four and a half years. Very occasionally, she coughed.
âHollywood and the world were devastated this morning when a terrorist bomb exploded in the grounds of one of the city's most exclusive elementary schools, killing at least seventeen students and three faculty members and seriously injuring very many more.
âA suicide bomber drove the device into the school's front yard in a white panel van, detonating it only ten feet away from a line of children who were on their way to play sports in a nearby field. Some of the children have yet to be formally identified.
âAmong the dead and injured were the sons and daughters of some of Hollywood's best-known celebrities, including the ten-year-old daughter of Lynn Ashbee, who plays Megan White in
May to September
; the nine-year-old daughter of Billy Kretchmer, who plays Jed Summers in
The Fairchild Family
, and the eight-year-old son of scriptwriter Frank Bell, who has penned more than nineteen episodes of the hit comedy series
If Pigs Could Sing
âEye witnesses described the scene as “carnage,” with children's bodies strewn all over the schoolyard. The bomb blast was heard seven miles away in Sherman Oaks, and initial estimates suggest that the van contained more than three hundred and fifty pounds of high explosive. It was also packed with scrap metal, including tools, ball bearings, razor-wire and auto parts, in order to make its effect doubly devastating.
âLos Angeles police commissioner, Marvin Campbell, immediately called for the assistance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency from Denton, Texas, as well as FBI explosives experts and anti-terrorist teams. So far no group or individual has claimed responsibility for the outrage, which Commissioner Campbell described as “a sickening act of war against the innocent.”'
Eventually, Margot got up from her chair, came across the living room, and switched the television off. She stood and stared at Frank. A woman so small that she was almost like a child, she had a short brown bob, and she was wearing a brick-red artist's smock that was two sizes too big for her, and black leggings. She had a sharp, uptilted nose and the same large brown eyes that had always made Danny look so serious.
âWhy did you leave him?' she asked. Her throat sounded dry.
âI told you, Margot, I left him for no time at all. Minutes, seconds, not even that. I didn't realize that he was hurt so bad. There were other people â there was a woman with her hand blown off. Do you think that if I'd had the slightest inklingâ?'
âHe was your
, Frank. He wasn't
. He was dying and you left him alone. He died by himself, don't you understand that? He died and his daddy wasn't even there to hold his hand.'
Frank stood up. âHow do you think
feel about that? Do you have any idea? I picked him up off the sidewalk and I checked him to see if he was hurt and I couldn't see anything, nothing at all. Just a scratch on his nose and a couple of scrapes on his knees.'
âNot forgetting the four-inch nail that tore his liver to pieces.'
âMargot, I couldn't see it! There was no blood â his coat wasn't torn. He said his back hurt but I thought that was only from the blast.'
âHe said his back hurt and you just
âFor Christ's sake, you weren't there, you didn't see it! There were dozens of people who needed help! It wasÂ .Â .Â . smoke and dust and blood and children screaming andÂ .Â .Â . Jesus, Margot. There was no way of knowing that he was hurt so bad.'
Margot was about to say something but changed her mind. She crushed out her cigarette in the Mexican ashtray on top of the television, hesitated for a moment, thinking, and then stalked out of the living room. Frank switched on the television, but all of the network news channels were still reporting the bomb story, and so he switched it off again.