My fourth-period class was Drama I. My debate teacher had suggested theater as a way to get more comfortable with public speaking. That, and Madison begged me to take the class with her. Her long-term crush, Sophia, was taking it, and Madison wanted my “emotional support.” So there we were.
It was Friday, and the drama teacher, Mr. Finch, was holding auditions in the auditorium for our big class project, a production of A Christmas Carol. Madison and I were sitting in the second row waiting for our turn. And, more importantly, for Sophia’s turn.
The auditorium at The Wall was only about five years old, and it was awesome. There was a curved wooden stage, heavy red velvet curtains, and tiers of cushioned red folding seats like a movie theater. The other students in the class were spread out in the first and second rows. Mr. Finch sat in the center of the first row, watching a freshman girl named Isabelle read for the Ghost of Christmas Present. Since this was the entry-level drama class, there were a lot of freshmen and sophomores, along with us few not-quite-thespian-material upperclassmen.
“I think Sophia is next!” Madison whispered. Sure enough, Sophia, a voluptuous Latina with sassy pigtails, had edged up to the stage steps.
Madison squeezed my hand so hard I said “Ow!” loudly. Mr. Finch gave me a glare over his shoulder.
“Sorry.” Madison made a rueful grimace and sank down in her seat.
“Shhh!” I pointed to the stage and whispered in her ear. “Don’t harsh the magic.”
Isabelle plunged on. “There are some upon this earth of yours who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name—” Cough, cough, cough.
Isabelle’s cough turned into a hacking fit. She covered her mouth with the crook of her arm, her eyes apologetic.
“Take your time,” Mr. Finch said.
Isabelle had a cold. Her voice was scratchy, and she’d been hacking on and off since class began. She tried again. “There are some upon this earth—” Cough, hack, cough.
“All right.” Mr. Finch stood up and turned to face us. “Does anyone have a cough drop they are willing to sacrifice for the sake of Isabelle’s audition?”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Finch,” Isabelle said, looking chagrined. She wiped her nose on her sweatshirt sleeve.
No one else said anything, so I raised my hand. “I’ve got cough drops in my locker. Halls Menthol-Lyptus.”
Mr. Finch quirked an eyebrow at me. “And your locker is where?”
“Just around the corner in A-Wing.”
“Then go get them, and hurry, please, Landon. Isabelle, you can read later, once you’ve had a cough drop. Grab the box of Kleenex from the backstage hall and come down, please. Sophia, you’re up next.”
I stood and scooted out of the row. Madison gave me a kissy mouth, which I think meant I was kissing the teacher’s ass. I smirked at her. Any excuse to leave class and stretch my legs was fine by me.
I pushed out the heavy theater door, went down the hall, and turned the corner to A-Wing. Every year, my mom gave me a zippered bag of “emergency supplies” to stash in my locker. It included cough drops, aspirin, Band-Aids, tissues, wet wipes, safety pins, and a few weird things like a can of Ensure. In case the apocalypse hit, presumably. Or I turned eighty-five during third period.
At my locker, I stuffed a handful of cough drops into the front pocket of my jeans. As I shut the door, I became aware of a long, loud sound in the distance. It sounded like a power drill or like….
The alarm lights on either side of the hall flashed red, and a man’s voice came over the PA.
“Invader in school. Active shooter procedures now in effect. I repeat. Active shooter procedures now in effect. This is not a drill. This is not a drill.”
It was Principal Baylor’s voice, and he sounded rushed, panicky. My mouth went bone-dry and my heart thudded so hard, I thought for a moment it had stopped. I stood by my locker and listened. There was perfect silence.
We’d had an active-shooter drill the second week of school. I knew why there wasn’t an alarm blaring—so we could hear gunfire and identify the shooter’s position. I listened, but I didn’t hear anything. The lights continued to flash red in silent warning. Then it came again, louder now, the unmistakable sound of automatic gunfire, like I’d heard in a million video games and TV shows. Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat.
My knees went weak. Oh God. What was I supposed to do?
Avoid, deny, defend. That’s what they’d told us.
Avoid—if you had a clear and obvious exit, take it. Keep your head down and get as far from the school as possible.
Deny—if there was any risk the path out wasn’t clear, shelter in place. Lock the classroom door. Pull the shade. Barricade the door. Then get away from the door area.
Defend—if you couldn’t do either of the above, attack the shooter, preferably in a group.
I wasn’t in a classroom, so I couldn’t barricade inside. My gut reaction was to get out of the school. The front doors were closer, but the gunfire was coming from my left, from the center of the school. I could go right, run down A-Wing, and leave through the emergency exit.
I almost did that. I took one halting step in that direction.
Then I remembered Josiah.
His fourth period was gym, but he currently had a pass due to a faked “sore ankle.” He was supposed to spend the period studying. Which he usually did….
In the cafeteria.