Authors: Christine Seifert
Copyright Â© 2011 by Christine Seifert
Cover and internal design Â© 2011 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover design by RD Studios
Cover image Â© Iulian Dumitrescu, model: Iulia Vacaroiu
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The rose-patterned carpet of the room reminds me of the guest room in my grandmother's house. When I was a kid there, I used to hop from petal to petal. If I landed on white space or a leaf, I had to start over again. Everything in my grandmother's guest roomâ
room, I called itâwas the same purplish-red of the roses in the carpet. Even the little ball on the end of the chain I pulled to turn the light on and off matched the flowers.
I can't remember if this room matches, and I can't see much of anything. The side of my face is smashed against the carpet, and I can feel a hand pressing hard on the other side. “What are you going to do to me?” I ask, but I doubt he can understand me, because my cheeks are sucked in like a little kid doing a fish impression.
“Shut up,” he says, but he's good-natured about it, like we're just fooling around.
“Please,” I say, and the pressure on the side of my head eases.
I lift my head as much as I can, my neck straining, my hands bound behind my back.
“Why are you doing this?” I ask.
He's quiet for a moment as he releases my head, but as soon as I struggle to a sitting position and glance wildly around the room, he smashes my head back to the ground, grinding his knee into my face.
“We should've known this would happen,” he says. “It was predicted.”
Attention: There has been a shooting on school grounds. The building is currently under full lockdown. Please check back here for updates.
âQuiet High website
“Oh, dear,” Mrs. McClain says, her liver-spotted hand unhelpfully lingering on the fire extinguisher.
“Gross,” a girl who is actually named Lexus says when I finish. She shakes her smooth cap of hair in disgust.
“Somebody get this girl some water,” Mrs. McClain calls, finally moving into action.
“I'm fine,” I say. “It's just my first week of school.” Blank stares all around. What they don't know is that this happens to me
first week of a new school, even though this is my ninth new school since kindergarten. It's not always
, exactly, but it is always something. The first day of second grade, I threw up in Mrs. Horvath's purse. The third day of fourth grade, I sneezed so hard, I broke a blood vessel in my nose and spewed blood all over some kid whose name I can't even remember. In seventh grade, I leaned against the fire alarm and set off the overhead sprinklers. Tenth grade? I hit an icy patch with my car and drove over the assistant principal's left big toe (and lost my learner's permit). This time around, it was the choking.
I was just sitting there, chewing gum, trying to make it through a coma-inducing demonstration on balancing chemical equations, when I felt the fruity chunk slip down my throat. Suddenly, there was no air at all. After a brief moment of panic, I stood up and staggered around, not knowing for sure what to do. My feet got caught in the strap of my bookbag, and I staggered, zombie-like, from left to right, spilling the bag's contents. Finally, the guy in front of me jumped up and moved toward me. One, two, three, then four painful Heimlich maneuvers laterâunder the watchful stare of twenty-two pairs of eyes, including Mrs. McClain's rheumy gazeâI spat out the gum and took a giant breath.
Shortly after, I threw up on my savior's shoes.
Hello, Quiet High. I've arrived!
“Get her some water!” Mrs. McClain yells again. My rescuer appears in front of me. “You're going to be okay,” he says reassuringly. I nod. “I'm Jesse, by the way.” He sticks out his hand as if we are at a cocktail party chatting over meatballs stuck with toothpicks, instead of standing with a puddle of my vomit between us. “Pleased to meet you,” he says without any sign of sarcasm.
“Ah, thanks,” I say to this kid, this odd misfit among the cowboys and jocks who populate Quiet High. What else can I say?
Sorry that I spewed stomach bile on your Skechers
? I expect him to be insulted by the bite in my voiceâor too grossed out to be near meâbut he gives me a half-smile and then leans over to set my bookbag upright. I bend down with him. Up close, I notice that behind his sleek, plastic-framed glasses, he has shiny brown eyes and eyelashes that curl up. Around his neck is a skinny tie, knotted loosely.
Mrs. McClain herself finally hands me a cup of lukewarm water. “It's going to be okay, honey,” she croons, her warm bony hand delicately patting my back, her coffee breath spreading over my cheek. Her wrinkled face suddenly crumples as she looks at the floor. Her voice changes. “You'll need to clean this up immediately. Health code standards,” she adds sharply. Her bony hand now feels like a cold claw inching across my shoulder blade.
“Oh,” I say. “Where are theâ?” I stop when I realize I have no idea what tools I'll need to clean up barf. How about a hazmat suit?
“Over there.” She motions toward a supply closet in the corner of the room. “Mops, buckets, paper towels, sanitizer, rubber gloves, sand, everything you need.”
What do I need sand for? What exactly does she expect me to do?
I reluctantly head for the closet as conversation resumes around me. Skinny Tie trails behind me, following me to the supply closet. I give him a little kiss-off wave, part “Thanks for saving my life!” and part “Please don't ever speak to me again, because I'm mortified!” I step inside the clammy darkness, close the door behind me until it latches with a satisfying click, and take a deep breath. Just enough light from the classroom filters in underneath the door so that I can easily find my way to a floor-to-ceiling shelf unit in the back. It's towering with textbooks and assorted junk: beakers, test tubes, cleaning supplies, and a strange collection of what appear, upon closer examination, to be
figurines. There's a small sink on the left side, and I lean over it, lapping up the cool water like a parched dog. I rinse and spit a few times before I wash my face, and then squint at the tiny mirror. It's too dark to see if I look as rotten as I feel. I consider flipping on the light switch by the door but decide against it. The darkness is soothing.
The dull murmur of the class barely makes it through the heavy wooden door. Away from the lull of McClain's scratchy voice, I feel kind of relaxed. It's sort of nice in here, kind of like how I imagine a morgue would be, only warmer and less creepy. I move to a Red Cross bucket in the corner and tip it over to make a comfy seat. Why rush to clean up puke? Maybe if I wait long enough it'll disappear. Or maybe I'll disappear. I prop my feet on a stack of books and lean against the shelves. I drift someplace between awake and asleep, a pleasant middle ground that has no good name.
Sometime laterâseconds or minutes, I don't knowâI hear the screams, the abrupt scuffle of desks and feet, and a sudden chorus of pained cries. “Help!” someone yells over the din.
And then as quickly as it all begins, silence resumes, and I wonder if I've imagined it. My paralysis lifts quickly, and I scramble to the door, tipping the bucket over in my haste. I trip on the handle and catch myself before I land on my face. My hand is on the doorknob when I hear it: Mrs. McClain's voice is plain, calm, and strangely indifferent, like she's talking about her bunions.
“He's got a gun,” she says. “Nobody move.”
Being able to see a person's future. That's what we were after all along. We wanted to know what makes a good kid good and a bad kid bad. Can you blame us for that? So we spend years and years of research trying to figure out what makes people tick. And then what happens? We find an astoundingly, marvelously simple answer: The brain isn't so much a complicated machine as it is a crystal ball. If you look into it, you will see everything you want to know.
âDr. Mark Miliken, senior researcher at Utopia Laboratories
A piercing scream cuts through the classroom. It almost seems to travel, slithering under the crack of the supply closet door and landing on me. I physically jump when I feel it touch me. A cacophony of observations rise up out of the room:
“He's heading for this room! I can see him down the hall!” Someone is brave enough to look out the door.
“Barricade the doors!”
“The tables are bolted to the floor!”
“The door doesn't lock!”
“He'll see us! Don't go out!”
“Stay quiet! Nobody talk!”
Shrieks transform into whispers. Sobs turn to hiccup-y, snotty sniffles.
“He's almost here.” Strangely, this last observation is punctuated with an eerie giggle.
I hear rapid staccato pops. It could be a Fourth of July round of Black Cats, competing snare drums, a carburetor backfire. Only it's a gun. Long pauses between shots make me tremor all overâsuccessive pops are almost reassuring. He's still far away. He isn't here. Yet.
I am frozen, my hand still glued to the door handle. Suddenly, I realize that the popping has ceased for a long timeâat least a couple of minutes.
“He's gone! I can't see him!” The voice is strong but tentative. It's coming from the lookout, the kid who is manly enough to try to protect the whole class. I know who it is: Sam Cameron, the blond giant who sat across from me before the choking incidentâthe man of the family.
I ease the door open, my hand steady and firm. Slowly, slowly, the door inches open, but my view is blocked. A strong back fills the opening. Hands are placed on either side of the doorframe. I couldn't get out if I wanted to. It's a sentryâa skinny-tied sentry. “Stay back,” Jesse says to me now.
And then it seems to all happen at once: the shots, the window breaking, the voices intensifying, the “Oh, god” moan rising above it all. Someone shrieks, “He's coming through the window!”
Why doesn't somebody stop him?
Where are the cops?
Push him out the window!
Punch him in the face!
“Let me out,” I order Jesse. It's not rational. Why would I want out now?
“I want to see,” I whine, feeling more scared because I can't see what everyone else can. Wouldn't it be better if I could just see the shooter's eyes, the barrel of the gun, the fear in the eyes of the girl who is crying so loudly I can't hear myself think?
“Stay,” Jesse barks at me. “Please,” he adds, his voice softer, protective.
That does it, the
. It's the last nail in what feels like my coffin.
I want out!
There's not enough air in here. Panic rises inside of me, and I feel it whooshing through my nose. I just want some air, some light, some space. “Let me out!” I cry and push hard against his back, so hard that my wrists burn. But nothing happens. He doesn't move even a millimeter. I push harder, and then, suddenly, he turns. I fall forward, catch myself, take two surprised steps back. And then he's in the closet with me. The door is closed and his back is against it. He grabs my shoulders. “Shh,” he whispers. “He'll hear us. He's in the room now. I can hear him out there. He didn't see me. I'm sure he didn't see me.”
Inexplicably, my head clears, my heart slows down, my hands stop shaking. I can breathe. He's in here. It's already done. Somehow, it feels better. I breathe through my nose. In and out. In and out. “Good,” Jesse says. He drops his hands and takes hold of my fingers.
“What's going on out there?” I ask. Jesse turns to the door, presses his ear against it. He keeps one hand awkwardly gripping my right pinky. “He's talking.” Jesse listens. I move forward, silently, and lean my ear next to his.
The shooter's voice is low and gravelly.
He has a sore throat,
I think to myself. “I hate dumbfucks,” he's saying. “I hate all the dumb people, the retards, the people who screw everything up for me. I'm too good for this. Too good for this shitty world. You know? Nobody is ever going to truly get me. I'm all alone.”
“Death to socialism!” he says now, triumphantly. “Death to politics and the establishment and the so-called authorities!”
“Hey, buddy.” A voice in the corner tries to soothe him. It's Sam again, taking over.
“Shut up!” the shooter yells. “You all need to remember this! Everybody look at me! Look at me! I want you to remember what it's like to watch meâto watch me shoot. It'll never get more real than this. So pay attention!”
Before I can react, Jesse shoves me hard. His hand is wrapped tightly over my mouth, so I can't make a sound. He moves me almost gracefully to the sink at the side of the room and pushes me hard on my shoulders.
“Who's there?” the croaking shooter yells from the classroom. “Who's there?” He is getting closer to us, closer to the closet. “Do we have volunteers in there? Volunteers who want to know what it's like to die by my hands?”
Jesse pulls open the cupboard under the sink. “Get in,” he hisses. He gives me a hard push when I hesitate.
“I can't,” I say, eyeballing the tiny cupboard in the dark. “I'll never fit.” He puts his hand on top of my head and forces me to crawl headfirst into that tiny space. My shoe falls off. He barely misses my toe when he slams the cupboard door shut. I can barely breathe in the tight space. Sickening pain takes over in my spine, my legs, my arms. I'm bent in ways I didn't think my body could physically bend. My neck aches. My cheek is pressed against my sweating ankles.
A knock sounds at the supply closet door. “Come out,” the shooter singsongs. “Come and see the greatest thing you'll ever see!”
Jesse is moving quickly and desperately right outside the cupboard. I can hear books falling, the
figurines breaking beneath his shoes, the metal shelving scratching on the cement floor.
He's going to block the door,
I think hopefully.
The doorknob jiggles. “Son of a bitch,” the shooter says. “It's jammed.”
Jesse is still scrambling. I can hear him mumbling under his breath as things continue to drop off the shelves. I want out of this horrible cupboard where the sink is leaking on my head and the smell of rusty pipes fills my nose, but I can't move. “If that's how you want to play it,” the shooter calls, “then we'll play. Very smart, by the way. But not as smart as I am. Not by a long shot.”
Sirens are blaring outside. How long have they been there? How long has this been going on? Seconds? Hours? Days? I can't remember anymore.
“Come out of there,” the shooter yells, angry now, “or I'll start shooting out here! Your choice: you or them. Feel like a hero today?”
“Don't,” I say, but I can't get enough air to my lungs to be heard over the sirens and the clatter in the closet. Jesse is pulling on something. I can hear him grunting. “I'm going to count to three.
The sound reverberates. A sense of relief streams through me in that cupboard, even though I don't know what has happened. Still, I feel calm.
But then the gun goes off, so loud my eardrums ache. “Help,” I try to say, but who's there to hear me?