A wave of terror slicked through me as I stood there with no Plan B. The gunfire was louder now—tat-tat-tat-tat-tat. There were gut-curdling screams, a grown man’s screams. A plea. “God help me!” Something large fell and broke. Some part of my brain registered that the gun rounds were fast. Automatic? Semiautomatic? Two shooters. And there I stood, in the middle of a wide-open space.
I was going to die. It was a certainty, cold and blunt, like it had already happened. Me, and everyone else in this crowded cafeteria. We were going to die. There was a heartbeat in which I could almost accept it, when it felt so inevitable there was no point in fighting.
And then something inside me screamed. Please God, no. Not before I’ve even had a chance to live.
I turned to the windows. Kids were beating on the glass, but the windows only slanted open a little at the bottom. One really small kid was trying to squeeze through. I prayed he made it.
I turned to the serving line, but it was jammed with kids already. People were screaming and pushing, and it looked like the people already inside had nowhere to go.
In the dining area, people were turning the large tables onto their sides and ducking behind them. For a moment, I was tempted to join them. But I knew those laminate tabletops wouldn’t stop bullets.
Rat-a-tat-tat. The gunfire was right outside. I was so frightened I wanted to puke. My pulse pounded in my ears. Do something. Anything!
My gaze landed on the water fountain across the room. The wall at the fountain was built out a foot or so, maybe for pipes. And, right above the silver water spigot, the mural showed a girl in a band uniform with flowing blonde hair and a trumpet raised to her lips. My terrified brain latched on to this as a sign, like she was an angel showing me the way.
My Nikes pushed against linoleum, propelling me forward in a half-run, half-dive. I reached the water fountain and pushed myself tight into the corner furthest from the hallway. The build-out was barely deep enough. If I stood sideways, the shooters might not see me. But if they walked all the way into the room, I was dead.
There was no time to pick another hiding spot. My gaze skimmed over kids huddling behind tables. It was like watching a car wreck in slow-mo.
A breath later the tat-tat-tat-tat-tat was there, loud and horrible. I couldn’t see the hallway or the shooter. I didn’t want to look, only pressed myself back against the wall as hard as I could. But I saw what the guns did. Tables, chairs, the windows—and bodies—jumped and splintered under a rain of invisible bullets. Shrieks and pleas mixed with gunfire and the thwunks and pings of the bullets hitting targets.
The sound was worse than anything I could ever imagine. The tables that had been set up as barriers were riddled with holes. Red spread across the gray linoleum floor.
I squeezed my eyes shut, willing it all away, willing it to please, please, please stop. Stop hurting them. Please stop hurting them.
I heard bullets hit the wall I was standing behind and the metallic ping as they struck the water fountain. A burning wave of heat in my stomach told me I was going to be sick. My brain managed a stuttered warning.
Get down. Get down, get down, get down.
I slid down in that corner, curling myself into a ball, trying to get as small as possible. My stomach hurt. I tucked my head down, wishing I had a shell I could draw into, like a turtle. But I had no hard shell, only soft flesh and tissue and a fear so deep it was cold and black and heavy, like gravity was sucking me down, like I could die from that alone. My eyes and mouth were hot from the emotion that wanted to be let out—from the screams that demanded to be let out. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t make a sound in case they heard me. I choked down those screams, swallowed them. They went down hard, clawing at my insides, like maybe they’d live inside me forever.
I became aware, slowly, that the gunfire had stopped. Silence mocked my ringing ears. Part of me wanted to peek around the fountain and see where the gunmen were. Were they walking farther into the cafeteria? Were they about to see me?
But I couldn’t look. I could not. I couldn’t face what I might see. I didn’t want to see a gun raised, pointing at me. If I was going to die, I didn’t want to see it coming.
My heart hammered against my thighs. My ears hurt from the sudden silence, broken only by low groans. I smelled the stale, coppery scent of my breath where my face was pressed against my knees. My gut ached from being clenched so tight.
I think I disappeared inside my head for a bit. I don’t know how much time passed before I became aware again. It was gunfire that woke me up, shooting adrenaline through me with a fresh jolt of terror. But this time the sound was far away. Somewhere else in the building. The shooters had moved on.
There was a feeling of utter relief that was practically euphoric. They’d left, and I was still alive. I’d survived! I opened my eyes slowly and saw the gray sky outside through shattered windows. Cold air touched my face. My vision was dark and swimmy, and I blinked to clear it.
Then I looked around. And the feeling of relief vanished.
The scene in the cafeteria didn’t look real. Tables and chairs had been blown over or back by bullets, but some still stood on their legs, looking strangely normal. Under and all around them were bodies. The ordinary, everyday clothes—hoodies, jeans, tennis shoes, T-shirts—were so wrong. So, so wrong. And, God. There was so much blood.
I became aware of sounds then. Soft sobs came from somewhere to my left. A pile of bodies stirred, like someone was trying to get out from underneath it. At the windows I saw a girl in bloodstained pink pants sitting on the floor, crying and trying to text on her phone. But her hands were shaking so badly, she couldn’t seem to do it.
I had a phone. I should call the police. 911. Tell them to send help. Ambulances. Please.
My hands felt like they didn’t belong to me as I uncurled my body to get to my phone. My fingers were cold and numb. I felt achy and weak. The idea went through my head that I was in shock. I reached for the front pocket of my jeans to get my phone, and it was all wet there. I looked down.
My entire shirt and the top of my jeans were red with blood.
I stared at it. The pain came, sharp and achy, growing like a beast rising to the surface. A gush of blood oozed through the fabric.
Fuck. I’d been shot.