April 30th: Decisions with terrible consequences
The Bells at Myron McCord
, by W.K. Erwin

Jeff Nelson held his gut, the stabbing relentless pain was the only thing keeping him conscious, that and the bells. Every breath was a new world of pain and misery, but it kept the blackness away and seemed to echo in his ears along with the bells of Myron McCord High School’s big clock as they marked the noon hour. That blackness meant oblivion and he knew it. He clutched his pistol in the other hand, the gun’s metal the only thing cool in the world of heat and pain. He opened his eyes and looked down at his uniform, it was a mess, blood and torn fabric and dirt.

He looked up and the sun was high overhead, beating down on him with a late summer intensity that made moving a misery even for the most minute tasks. He was backed in a corner, jammed between a humming electric transformer and a low cinder block wall. The wall was painted white, peeling in places, but reflective enough to make him feel as if he were baking in the heat. Gunfire echoed around him along with cries and screams even as the automated bells chimed on, marking the hour, and not the insanity. He heard the tinny voice on his shoulder-mounted radio and tried to decide which hand he would use to try and communicate with the outside world. The gun or the gut? Let go of the bullet wound or his only piece of protection?

Voices were approaching. It was them, the three children, the three killers, he could tell from the forced jocularity and bravado. The door next to the transformer opened and he heard the three walk out of the gymnasium and into the open hallway between it and the quad. He looked out into the quad and saw it was empty save for three dead children. Teenagers, but children all the same. He let go of the gun and turned off his radio, not wanting to give away his position.

He winced in pain and everything went gray as his stomach muscles twinged. He tried to feel anything other than the gut wound, tried to get a sense of how bad the wound was. Did the bullet go through? Or was it lodged in his spine? He thought the latter but hoped for the former. The path from the gym through the quad to the main administration and classroom building was clear, he was behind the only cover. The transformer shielded him from the pathway and he hoped he might get a clean shot at the three if they couldn’t see him.

As the door to the gym opened, the muffled sound of screaming and moaning became instantly louder. The sounds were mercifully muted when the doors swung closed. He clutched at the pistol, making sure the safety was off and pulled it into his lap with great effort. The footsteps stopped. They were standing just on the other side of the transformer. He prayed to whoever or whatever might listen that he could stay conscious long enough to get a shot off.

“Main building,” one of them said.

“No,” another said. “We’ve already been in there.”

“Lets try the temporary classrooms,” the third said. “Through the quad and down the hill. I bet they’re on lockdown. We blow the locks with the shotgun and they’ll be cowering in there like sitting ducks.”

“Mrs. Johnson is in one of them,” the first one said. “She was always nice to me.”

“Fuck that bitch,” the third one said. “She failed me last year, I had to take summer school because of her.”

“Alright,” the second one said. “Let’s take the temporary classrooms. We got about ten minutes until we’re completely fucked.”

“Wait, where’s the cop?” the first one said. “I shot that piece of shit right there, right in the middle of the quad. He’s gone.”

“Coward probably ran for it,” the third one said.

“I got him in the gut,” he said. “He couldn’t have made it far.”

“Reload, let’s look for him,” the second one said.

+++

The day started like any other day in late August. He’d seen the kids come and go, getting off buses and out of cars in the usual morning scramble to get into school as Myron McCord’s bells signaled the eight o’clock hour. He made small talk with the teachers and the principal and the occasional student that wasn’t put off by his badge. He genuinely liked the kids. Sure, some of them were fuckups, riding their skateboards, smoking cigarettes and the occasional joint but most of them were good eggs. He thought this year would be a good year.

Last years crop of seniors had a few really bad eggs in it, Gary Trammell and Hunter Jacobs in particular. They’d been the types to throw rocks through windshields, come to class drunk or get in fights in the hallways. If anyone was going to do something like this, he’d swear it was them. But they were long gone, off to wherever and out of his and the school district’s hair.

This year’s class had the promise to be a once in a generation, the football team would be very, very good; they would undoubtedly go deep in the playoffs. There were some real smart kids too, he’d been told that four had a decent shot at full-ride scholarships to Ivy League schools. His nephew, Skyler, was in this class. Skyler was a middle of the road kid, not an athlete, not an intellectual, just another kid roaming the hallways. He tried to say hi to the kid a few times this year, but Skyler kept his distance, which he understood in a way.

Just hours earlier he drank his coffee and watched the kids come and go. He nodded to the teachers and checked the hallways, going through the motions for the thousandth time in his career. He was getting old, getting a gut and looked the part of the school cop. The kids made fun of him, he knew, but it never bothered him because it was always behind his back. No kid ever said anything to his face unless it was behind a brittle mask of jumped up bravery and fear. The look in the three shooters eyes this morning was something else entirely.

+++

Distant sirens brought him back to himself. He’d failed so badly this day. How many children were dead? If they just hit one kid with every hundred bullets they used, he thought it was a massacre past Columbine, past Sandyhook, past Virginia Tech and all of it lay at his feet. He had to do something to make it right.

The three figures walked past the transformer, eyes ahead, scanning the empty quad. He clutched his gun, looked down at his gut and the hand covering the wound was caked in blood, at least he wouldn’t have to live with this. He’d be dead just minutes from now. He wouldn’t have to face the parents, the survivors, the dead faces, the media and his brother David.

He raised the gun, not knowing which of the three was Skyler from the back. They all looked eerily similar, dressed in black, wearing tactical gear. They wore something similar to the vest he was supposed to wear underneath his uniform. The first day he’d left it at home he felt terrible, wanting to go home for it, but not daring to leave campus for fear of something like this happening. The second time was easier, the third easier than that until it was no longer part of his uniform. The old cliche, ‘it can’t happen here’ still echoing guiltily through his mind. But this was Arizona, it was hot and the Kevlar made it even hotter.

The three fanned out in the quad. He had to get them now if he was going to get them at all. ‘Aim for the head,’ he told himself ‘they’re wearing Kevlar.’

+++

His first hint of trouble that day was the car that parked in the visitors lot, just in front of the school. It was his brother’s car, a black Dodge Avenger that David would never loan to anyone. Why he was so proud of the vehicle, Jeff never understood, but there it was.

Jeff was in the little glass and metal booth at the front entrance to the quad, the tiny fan mounted on the desk doing little to disperse the rising temperature and stuffiness. His booth was a little office with a phone, a radio and a bank of small monitors showing the school’s internal cameras. The booth was his domain and he only left it for lunch and recess to watch the younger kids who couldn’t leave campus.

He left the booth with a strange feeling in his stomach, his very unprotected, very protruding stomach. His belly was something of a running joke to the kids. What a target it made. The driver got out of the Avenger and his blood ran cold. It wasn’t Skyler, that was definitely wrong. It was a kid he recognized as one of Skyler’s friends, but he didn’t know the kid’s name, not off the top of his head. He relaxed a little when Skyler got out of the back seat. Then the passenger door opened and another vaguely familiar person got out and he saw the vests, not the weapons, but he saw the vests and the black tactical pants and shirts.

“School play, gotta be a school play or something,” he muttered as they crossed the street toward him.

They carried duffle bags. Skyler took point and they walked toward him in an unconscious delta formation. The lack of emotion on his nephew’s face was unnerving. The smiles on the other two even more so. He closed the door of his little booth and walked the few steps toward them, closing the gap.

“Hey guys,” he said. “You’re late, you have to check in at the office.”

“Don’t think so,” one of the kids standing behind Skyler said.

The kid’s face was a plastic mask, the look somewhere between a grimace and a smile, a terrible rictus that hid something Jeff couldn’t describe. Arrogant fear? Something like that, something terrible and alien.

“Afraid so,” Jeff said, squaring to the kid and looking away from his nephew. “You’re two hours tardy and you can’t park in the visitor’s lot.”

“Pudgy old Jeff the cop,” the other one said. “You ain’t going to stop us.”

His old street cop instinct was screaming in the back of his brain and he let his hand drop to the butt of his .45, but it was way too late. Skyler drew a pistol on him, his brother’s glock 9mm he noted in an abstract way, and then the boy shot him in the stomach. The pain wasn’t all that bad at first, just a feeling as if he’d been punched in the gut, but it was soon followed by a burning, stabbing sensation as something let go inside. He reached for his gun, grabbing the handle, but then the burning, searing pain shot through his stomach and he fell to the ground. He gasped like a landed trout as his head hit the sidewalk and his hat went rolling off like a lost wheel on a crashed car. Through his greyed out senses and searing pain, he saw the boys walk past him and into the gym, unable to do anything but witness.

And the bells in Myron McCord’s clock tower chimed the half hour as the three of them stepped over Jeff’s body. He heard them unzipping the duffles and the sharp crack of a rifle and the loud boom of a shotgun as the only students left in the quad were killed. He writhed on the ground, turning around to see the three walk into the gym, but then he’d gone black for some time.

He woke, not knowing how much time had passed. He crawled after them, hand to his gut, other hand holding the .45. He crawled, stood, crumpled to the ground and then crawled again, hearing the murderous sounds of gunfire and screaming. The sun baked the concrete beneath him as he slowly made his way after them. He made it as far as the transformer before his body gave out. He was done moving, done in his pursuit. His only chance to stop them now was ambush.

+++

Sitting next to the pulsing transformer, Jeff raised the weapon and sighted down the iron sights of the .45, something he’d never done in anger in his career. He’d never had to shoot anyone, even when he was working for the Scottsdale Police Department. As a school cop, he went to the range only as the regulations required, and then only to fire the standard two magazines worth of bullets at a target. He wasn’t a great shot even at the best of times, but as he looked through the quad, down the hill toward the temporary classrooms and the cowering freshman and teachers waiting for rescue, his hand ceased its trembling.

He sighted on one of the teens head, knowing now it wasn’t Skyler, choosing the one with an automatic rifle. He fired, the jolt in his arm vibrating down to his gut, making him let out an involuntary moan. The wound tore itself open and oozed thick, clotting blood into his lap and something thick and hot he didn’t want to think about.

The kid’s head tore open, the right side of his skull disintegrating under the power of the hollowpoint.The body crumpled in a heap, the rifle clattering on the stones. The other two turned to their fallen comrade.

“Alex!” the other one who wasn’t Skyler said, and the bravado was gone. It was sound of a young boy, surprised and scared.

Jeff started to gray out again, his head swimming from the pain and blood loss.

The tall skinny kid who ran to his fallen friend and started shaking him the dead body by the shoulders. Jeff raised the weapon one more time as his flickering consciousness cleared. His hand was shaking violently and he squeezed the trigger one more time, missing badly. He grunted in frustration, but didn’t dare let out a breath, fearing unconsciousness. The kid looked directly at Jeff, eyes round in fear and terror, as if waking from some kind of dream.

Jeff, ‘pudgy old Jeff the cop,’ fired off one more round, taking the kid in the throat. The impact made a shocking wound out of the kids neck and his hands flew to his throat. But any semblance of consciousness fled quickly, the body crumpling, falling face first next to his friend. The kid made a horrible gasping sound, a ragged sucking of wind that soon ceased.

Skyler saw his uncle finally, he’d been frozen in shock before, but now he saw the middle-aged cop between the wall and the transformer and the look of feral rage on his face made Jeff want to cry. He’d been there when the kid was born, been there when he’d taken his first step, been there at countless birthdays, been there when he was arrested for shoplifting. He loved the kid, but now he knew all of that was meaningless to the feral creature standing in front of him.

Skyler ran toward him, Jeff lifted his weapon for the last time and fired. His aim was true, he hit the boy in the left eye and then the gun dropped from his hand, the strength leaving him. Sklyer fell, dropping dead onto the searing white concrete just a few feet from his uncle. But Jeff didn’t see, he closed his eyes one last time and listened as the bells of Myron McCord’s clock marked the half hour, echoing against the stone walls of the quad.

*

W.K. Erwin is an unpublished novelist with aspirations toward being a great short story author. He works at a cemetery, so the grim and the dark come naturally to him. He was a reporter for a small town newspaper for a number of years and is a published nonfiction author. He’s written in every genre from straight fiction to horror, to fantasy and science fiction. He’s most comfortable writing about characters on the fringe of society.


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