Another place, at root the same. Here, their blood pounds so hard it rings in their ears and drums the inside of their skulls, and their breath comes quick and shallow, yes. Here, like that in-between place that Will remembers, is a fear, a confusion, an anger that runs below the surface, a bloodstream toxin that helplessness manifests, and with it a taste of that same smoky flavor on the air. But here, unlike the other place, the dark air smells of textbooks and worn carpeting and the stink of their sweat and fear, like the stink of the locker rooms at the other end of the building.
* * *
The first two men moved through the school quickly, little more than silhouettes against white windows. The light rushed to the glass, as if eager to watch but hesitant to enter. One of the two was stiff. His belt was thick and his badge shone. The other was loose, his legs scissoring as they slid into each hallway.
They came to the fallen, bearing down with their weapons upon the casualties. They screamed for the dead not to move. The dead complied. There was a sharp croak of handcuffs as the shotgun floated a slow circle in the air before settling, facing one end of the hall. The uniform took a knee, pointing the cold steel the other direction, watching for shadows that no longer flickered, reaching fingers for a neck.
I’ve got a pulse.
Two. Three pulses.
Five in need of medical attention in the westernmost wing. Possibly two suspects.
The man with the uniform skated across the blood from student to student, pushing the weapon away, checking for pulses, his partner covering him. The distinction was unsettling. Nervous fingers on triggers while checking for signs of life.
The sounds of the hallway turned to hitches in their breathing, whispered curses, and the small wet sounds one officer made with his hands against a girl’s neck.
Come on, he said. Get here, come on.
* * *
In the classrooms, the fabric of their Halloween costumes bled sweat against flesh, their backs against brick walls. Their muscles ached and cramped, but they stretched and rustled without complaint.
Some of the children nearly flinched at the sound of the shouts outside in the hallway, too real, too tangible. The echoes were louder than voices on normal days; Mister Davis yelling “no,” the sound of his skin tearing open in the doorframe when the wood caught his arm, the sound of the gunshots. The voices now in the hallway, twenty slow minutes later, were like the voices of angels, and turned the skin along their backs.
Commands echoed through doors with slams and knocks. Lights turned on, blinding white, throwing the world into such a hard reality. There’s a comfort in an imagined space, safety in the darkness in which you can reimagine your world and build it as you like. Through squinted eyes, sights anew took a flickering, flashing clarity; from blurred forms, darkness next to the white blended from the overexposed surreal to what they once knew. In their minds, the switch was so sudden, a flash like the turning on of the lights, first normal before the darkness, and then the waiting.
Halloween costumes had become incarnate on their pale faces shining with tears and glimmers of hope. Waxy yellow skin and pallid flesh merged with masks meant to blend in with those demons of the Hallowtide, to provide safety. Sweat-slicked hair plastered foreheads behind plastered foreheads. On the air was that feeling, camaraderie born in the space between the light and the dark, where all that could be grasped was the smoky tendrils of something like fear.
Then the doors sprang open. Like ghosts, men with guns slipped inside, sliding against walls. The black weapons were trained on the students who peered back without concern, distant.
The students will be briefly patted down before being sent on their way. A search for weapons. The hallway is not to be strayed from. Men will be with guns. The students can’t be a distraction, okay?
Hands ran across solid bodies, biological systems pumping blood and emotion to consciousness and thought–real again–before slaps, sending the students on their way.
Those students removed first were closest to the bodies. Men with long-guns and shiny pistols couldn’t block the sight. Their faces and the floor alike were stained black with blood. The puddles glistened.
The sound of students’ sudden realization materialized as tears. Someone throwing up beyond the bodies. Keep moving. Shouts. That lack of surety, whether they were talking to the students or the bodies. Another hacking cough further behind.
The hallways were sharp. The vivid texture of the brick stood out against the crumbling mortar that lined the walls in gray concrete. Posters hung as thin as razors from gummy tape. The windows shone. Men in black crouched rigid, gargoyles. Breathing and heart-beating sounds chased the students to the doors.
A man in black Velcro and body armor slapped the students on their backs when it was their time to exit the school. The feel of his hand left a tingling on the skin. The sun burned their eyes with sharp white reality.
They huddled again, against the outer, windowless wall of the auditorium. The sun was sharper than the melted haze it became in summer. The sky was that crisp autumn blue, while horizons suggested the wispy white clouds that follow the death of the trees, bringing stark November before frigid winter. Brown leaves littered grass the color of the final wavering note of an opera, carrying a melody before finally darkening, wilting.
Cops with weapons flickered about on the roof. Then there were words spoken, a rushing across the field, crispy leaves pressed into the crispy grass. The cold breeze on the edge of the air. With the cool was the faintest scent of burning, smoke from a fireplace not far away, lingering at the end of each breath, tickling the nose until exhales blow it away again.
Then onto the browning yellow school bus. The flashing lights of the emergency vehicles haphazardly parked through the student lot were dim against the late-afternoon sky. The bus smelled stale, the scent of too many children, too many times, passing through for too long. Packed into the bus, some students squeezed into seats while others stood or sat in the aisles.
The outside world held new fascination to the students. They gazed out the windows, the browning landscapes passing before their eyes. The sky stretched so far away, the puffy white clouds far further than normal. The rich blue, gradated from light blue to near-violet, encompassed the sky.
Pumpkins grinned from doorsteps as they passed through the neighborhoods. Once-fuzzy black webs dangled now from porch lights, wet, tangled from the rain. The air slid in the windows, tasting more now of the wet dead flora than of the smoke.
Winding through happy neighborhoods, the students stopped at the nearby elementary school. Two squad cars and one unmarked sedan rested in the emergency lane. A smiling man in a suit ushered them inside. His eyes were strained.
Bright paintings littered hallway walls. Fluorescent lights cast a yellow glow across the watercolor work. No shadows here. No darkness. No dripping lights.
They filed into the cafeteria, sliding into too-small chairs around too-small tables. Brightly painted walls around brightly painted window panes filtered the now-chilly looking fall weather from the outside. A cop spoke to the students, telling them that he needed to speak to those nearest the incident, that it wouldn’t last long. He smiled at the kids reassuringly. A few smiled back.