I was in a crappy mood for a Friday. I’d gotten maybe three hours of sleep the night before because my dad had been on a tear, something about the deep state and pedophiles. One of his radio talk shows must have set him off. I’d gone up to my room and played a video game, trying to ignore the whole thing. But even after he went to bed, I was too upset to sleep.
So there I was at school on Friday, feeling like moldy cheese someone had hidden in a dirty gym sock and left to sit in the sun for about a week. We had a big game that night, and I was dragging ass. I decided to skip my fourth-period gym class and go to Lunch A instead of B. I figured I’d hit the cafeteria, load up on carbs and protein, then go take a nap in the nurse’s office. If I could get an hour of shut-eye, I might be able to play ball.
I shot Coach an email about gym class, texted Jake to say I wouldn’t be eating with them, and headed to the cafeteria. As I walked in, a dozen people said “hi” or just stared. I bumped fists with a couple of guys and smirked at the flirting of a few cute girls. I’d noticed an uptick in attention this year, my first year as starting quarterback. It was kind of surreal. It’s not like any of them really knew me.
The cafeteria was a huge room. On the left side were the inbound and outbound openings to the serving line. On the right-hand wall was a mural of team sports, featuring some of the school’s star athletes from the past and the marching band with their red uniforms and gold instruments. There was a water fountain right in the middle of the mural. The wall straight ahead was all glass windows and faced the school’s front walkway. There were tons of tables and chairs, and it was always loud as hell.
I went through the line and got spaghetti, salad, and a banana smoothie. I was rung up by one of the cashiers, a bored-looking older lady in a hairnet, and stepped out into the seating area. I scanned for a quiet table where I could sit alone and scarf my food quickly. Spotting one, I started to cross the room.
And then it all fell apart.
There was a distant noise from the hallway, odd enough to catch my attention. It was a series of pops. It sounded like when I used to pop bubbled packing material as a kid. A second later, the light above the door started flashing red.
Red. With no alarm.
Surely it was a drill. Or a glitch? Like that nuclear warning that happened in Hawaii. It couldn’t be real.
The PA came to life with a static whine. “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.”
I stood there like a statue while, around me, the room turned into chaos. A chair clattered to the floor as someone near me jumped up. Girls screamed. A guy pushed a smaller kid out of the way as he ran for the hall. I would have dived to catch him, but I was still holding my tray with both hands. The kid hit the floor, scrambled to his feet, and half-slid across the linoleum in his hurry to get away.
Meanwhile, my brain was still offline.
There were more pops in the distance that I now recognized, absolutely, as gunfire. Glass shattered. Screams. They were the kind of screams you never want to hear, the kind that said something had gone terribly, horribly wrong for the screamer.
My stomach fell to my feet, and I was filled with a sense of dread so strong I wobbled. This was really happening. Here, at The Wall. Now. There was a shooter in the building. Bullets were being fired. People were being shot.
I shoved my tray at the nearest table, pushing it so hard it slid and fell off the other side. I needed to do something, move. But what?
Then it struck me, like a one-two punch.
There was a shooter.
And I was in the cafeteria.
The cafeteria was the worst place in the entire fucking school to be. There were no doors that could be locked and barricaded, nothing but a wide opening into the hall. I remembered the active-shooter drill we’d had, but I’d been in a classroom that day. In a classroom, the teacher was supposed to lock the door and barricade it, then we were to get as far away from the door as possible. That’s what we’d practiced.
What the hell were we supposed to do in the cafeteria? Panic clawed at my gut. Everyone was rushing three directions at once. What had they told us to do? Why hadn’t I listened better?
Three words came back to me: Avoid. Deny. Defend.
You were supposed to get to the nearest exit or, failing that, barricade inside a room with a door. I had to get out of this huge, open room.
I headed for the hall. A bunch of kids were already moving in that direction. And maybe not that much time had passed in my deer-in-headlights state, because it seemed like they were all running in slow-mo.
I mapped a route in my head. I wouldn’t go for the front entrance to the school, which was to the left. The shooter was more likely that way. I’d turn right, run down the central hallway to D-Wing. The D-Wing was a quiet hall of classrooms. I’d tear down that hall to the exit at the end. It would be safe outside. And if I couldn’t make it that far, I’d go into a classroom. Assuming I could find one that wasn’t already barricaded.
This flashed through my mind in an instant, more picture than words. I took a few stumbling steps toward the hall. Then the mass of bodies trying to exit collided with people trying to get inside. There was an instant pileup.
A dark-haired kid with glasses who looked about twelve shouted in a high voice, “Two shooters! They’re coming this way!” His face was so white with fear, it chilled me to the bone.
They’re coming this way.