Without warning, or any background whatsoever, the reader is plunged into the middle of an unimaginably horrible situation—a mass murder in a crowded theater. Except you can imagine it, because you’re inside the head of one of the terrified audience members. The fear is omnipresent. The chilling sounds of repeated gunfire are maddening. The thoughts careening around the mind of the first-person narrator are excruciatingly real. Amid the ongoing carnage, you learn that the storyteller’s girlfriend was one of the first to be hit. You share his sense of guilt as you realize he has lost contact with her when both crumpled to the floor. Yet he and you continue to be overwhelmed by the hideous reality going on unabated. Then an unknown benefactor drapes his body atop the narrator’s to shield him. When the gunman is temporarily distracted, the protector helps the narrator make a daring escape. This is a opening that makes it impossible for you to stop reading.
At this point he’s in the back of the theater, and the shooting hasn’t slowed down at all. Gunshots ring out steadily in the shadowy darkness... always in sets of three, letting me know where he is. I’m scared... so fucking scared... but not too scared to wonder what I did to deserve this special little slice of hell.
And I’m frozen... I can’t even move enough to swallow my spit. I know what I have to do—I have to look for Ginny, but I can’t since I’m frozen solid, like a leg of lamb in a walk-in freezer.
“I’ve been shot! Oh, sweet Jesus, I’ve been shot!”
Earsplitting blasts of sound—one, two, three. The gunshots have a life and a plan—no, a mission—all their own, to maim and kill by ripping through the flesh of everyone in this theater. I’m panting and sweating and wishing to God I knew how to pray because I’d so pray right now.
And as suddenly as it started, the shooting stops. Is it over? With the utmost caution, I exhale the breath I’ve been hanging onto so jealously... as if part of me fears I’ll never get the chance to take another. But one more wary breath moves in and out, and I know I have to get hold of myself so I can find her. Because it’s over now.... yes, I think maybe it’s ov—
Life-sucking and blood-spattering and gurgle- inducing, evenly spaced sets of three that are becoming so horribly predictable. I brace myself for the impact because I just know the next pop is going to come with excruciating pain that explodes in my head or my back or, if I’m lucky, my ass. Or, if I’m not so lucky, in all three places, one right after another.
This isn’t happening. It can’t be happening.
Is nineteen too old to want my mommy?
“Get down! Get on the floor!” Somebody yells. Too late for that. I’m already flat on the floor in the narrow space between the rows of seats; my head is bleeding all over the arm it’s resting on.... My left arm? My right arm? Somebody else’s arm? Not so sure. Not so sure it matters.
“Don’t shoot me—please don’t—”
“Put the gun down! Put it do-o-own!”
I belly crawl forward a few inches and reach around in search of Ginny’s hand but when I pat the floor all I can feel is a pool of blood that wasn’t there the last time I checked, and then there’s this cooling mound of flesh in its center.
“I don’t know what to do....” These words escape on a single breath followed by a few sharp coughs from an elderly man.
Annoying cough... forever suppressed.
Right after the second round of shots, when everybody had started rushing around, all frenzied and scrambling, I’d lost track of Ginny... in fact, I’d lost track of everything. Maybe because it had suddenly sunk into my stunned brain that this place was now a death chamber.My death chamber.
It seems like so much time has passed since the first bullet whizzed past my right ear... that for a month or a year—or for my entire lifetime—I’ve been waiting for the gunshots to stop.
A tiny voice inside my head suggests that I’ve been in this living hell for less than five minutes, maximum.
Right after the shooting had started, but before I’d lost Ginny, I caught a glimpse of the gunman’s silhouette against the bright stage. He’d seemed huge in his dark baggy clothing. He towered over the audience, but it probably just seemed that way because he was pointing a gun at us. I recognized the shooter from seeing him around campus. And when I saw his face profiled in the light—the bulging forehead, prominent nose, and receding chin—a name had sped through my brain, but soon the name was as lost to me as my girlfriend’s lax hand.
The gunman doesn’t say a word; his weapon does the talking. And the deafening popping sounds are closer again, like the gun has something it wants to say to me personally... something like, “You’re gonna die today, Jason.”
“I’m gonna push on your back really hard and I want you to squeeze as much of your body underneath the chairs as you can, got it?” The voice seems to come from a million miles away, but it’s coming from right behind me. On top of me, really. I feel his breath on the back of my neck.
“Are we going to die?” I’m not sure if I ask this or if it comes from the lips of the little old lady who’d been sitting on the other side of Ginny at the start of the play. The old lady who told us she’d come to Batcheldor College’s Harrison Theater tonight to see her granddaughter play Ophelia in the Shakespeare in the Spring Performance Series; not to die in a hail of bullets. I know for a fact that Ginny didn’t ask the question, though. She’s been silent since the second volley of gunshots when her head slumped over unnaturally onto my shoulder, and almost by instinct, I’d pulled her to the floor.
Batcheldor College’s small theater has been called “an acoustic gem” and right now it’s ringing with the erratic sounds of screaming and moaning and crying and shouting and shooting. But most impressive is the resounding silence of the gunman, which speaks louder than words, or gunshots, ever could.
All-in-all, it’s fucking noisy and confusing and crazy... the Beatles‟ tune “Helter Skelter” comes to mind. This is not how I want to die. Mostly because I don’t want to die!
The guy on my back is poking a single finger into the blood on my head, then twisting in such a way that I think he’s reaching to his back... like maybe he’s smearing my blood on his back. I’m distracted from his action by the squealing of the fire alarm in the darkness, and I find my blurry mind wondering if, in addition to the problem of a crazed gunman, we also have a fire to put out.
Would I prefer my death be a result of hungry flames or a hail of bullets?
“We’re gonna survive, just stay still. Completely still. ‘Kay?” I feel the pressure on my back that he promised me, and even though it hurts to have my belly pushed into the metal rungs at the base of the seats in front of us, I feel strangely safe. He speaks into my ear. “Play dead, dude.”
No, I’m not even remotely safe. But thankfully I play dead far better than my dog did when I taught him that trick at the age of seven.
The shots are earsplitting and getting louder because the shooter’s heading our way. I’m so fucking scared I’m trembling violently, but I promised the guy lying on top of me that I’d stay still. I concentrate on taking short shallow breaths, one after another, in my effort to stop trembling. To stay frozen—like I’ve been since I pulled Ginny to the floor and promptly let go of her hand so I could curl up into a tight fetal ball.
Somebody near me sits up, scrambles to his knees, and impulsively crawls toward the far aisle.
“Bang, bang... you’re dead.” The voice comes from directly above me; it’s blank and monotone and controlled. The weird snicker that follows is chilling. I want nothing more than to throw the big guy off my back and run like hell toward the double doors, but I just keep on going with the short breaths and stay as still as I’ve ever been in my life. Even in my terrified state, I know that the guy on top of me is totally exposed and I can’t move because I’ll cheat him out of his life, for sure. Which is so not cool when he’s trying to save mine.
I smell blood. Never noticed the smell of blood before. It reminds me of Grandma’s penny collection... if it got spilled onto the sticky floor of the theater. The scent of old copper is everywhere... like wet pennies strewn all around me on the floor.
Shooter’s right above us now. Don’t move... don’t move... don’t move....
“Dear God, help us!” This request seems to catch the shooter’s attention and he turns around and steps away from us. I curse myself for feeling as relieved, and maybe even glad, as I do.
We wait and it seems like forever. We wait as voices beg and plead and pray and he shuts them up with bullets. We wait as the sound of shots moves to the front left near the exit, where I figure he’s shooting at anyone who tries to get out through the double doors.
And then, for a second, it’s quiet.
“Now....” The big guy’s voice is whispering but it seems to blast into my left ear. “We have to make our move now.” Before I agree, the heaviness of his body lifts and I feel cold and exposed. “This is our chance to get outta here....”
His hand is attached to the back of my wrist, clutching me so hard that I know I’ll have fingerprint bruises for a week... if I live so long.
“Come on! Get up!”
“Ginny...” I whisper back. “I can’t leave Ginny.”
He reaches out to touch the flesh mound in the center of the pool of blood and whispers firmly, “Ginny’s already gone.” He releases my wrist just long enough to adjust his grip. “I worked here last year. I know how to get away. Come on....”
He pulls me up to my knees and drags me behind him. “Ginny.” But I only think her name this time because I’m literally too petrified to speak. We crawl like two sneaky toddlers through the narrow alley between the rows of seats and then down the outside aisle, over a couple of bodies—small ones, kids bodies that are way too still and cool—and to a trap door at the base of the stage. It’s a small gray square in the wall. I never noticed it before and I’ve been to the Harrison Theater at least five times this year to see Ginny’s roommate perform. The guy beside me pulls out a pocketknife and fiddles silently with the screws holding the little door in place.
The thin slab of metal covering the small door drops to the floor and contributes a new sound to the quieting chaos. It clangs in such a way that nobody left alive in the theater could miss it.
“Where do you think you’re going?” The gunman has stopped shooting and I hear the heavy stomping of combat boots coming toward us, down the aisle. Not running... just walking in swift, determined steps. My guardian angel grabs me and stuffs me through the opening in the base of the stage. I land on my chin in what seems to be a pile of music stands. My helper isn’t far behind in squeezing his bulky frame through the small square in the wall. We seem to have landed in some type of a cluttered crawl space, maybe the orchestra pit, and I struggle to make my way through what I assume are metal music stands. When we’re halfway through the mess, now crawling through unruly stacks of folding chairs, the overhead light in the pit flicks on.
“What’s going on in the theater, you guys? It’s mega-loud in there.” A clueless college girl’s voice. I can’t see her clearly because the sudden bright light stings my eyes, making me squint.
“Get out of here, lady—just run for it!” shouts my guardian angel. We can’t run yet because we’re still trapped among metal chairs.
“I see you two.... I see you.” It’s that deadly calm shooter’s voice again. “And I think I know you.”
For some reason he doesn’t climb into the orchestra pit to come after us but pushes the gun through the small opening and pulls the trigger three times. Bullets ricochet off the metal chairs and stands. Again I freeze, not sure which way to go. I’m grabbed fiercely by my right forearm and dragged over the remainder of the metal chairs to the door, where the clued-in girl is no longer standing.
I expect more shooting, but there’s none. Instead, that cold, creepy voice increases in volume, to assure us, “Don’t worry, I’ll find you....”
We take to our feet and start to run. Soon we’re holding hands in a narrow hallway... running for the back of the building... and then we’re outside in the cool darkness, still clinging to each other. We sprint through the muddy grass in the direction of the parking lot.
We stop at an old model, cherry red muscle car—a Dodge Charger.
“Get in!” His voice is husky as he opens the door, pushes me inside, and quickly shuts it. Then he scrambles over the hood to get to the driver’s side. He flings open the door and jumps into the driver’s seat, not gracefully, but with more speed than I could ever have imagined was possible for a guy his size. I guess adrenaline counts for a lot. And soon we’re driving off the college grounds, out of the supposed safety of the “Batcheldor College Bubble,” and into the real world.