Gina Wohlsdorf: Basic EconomicsFebruary 12th, 2012 | Posted by in Fiction & Flash Fiction | Issue 1 (Feb 2012)
Your children probably aren’t dead. That was the gist of the cops’ information. “We don’t have a clear understanding of the situation at this time,” said Sergeant Kennison. “You know what we know. Try to be patient.”
The shooting started at one o’clock. Word spreads fast in the suburbs, especially when every teenager who’s any teenager owns a cell phone. The police set up a check-point at an old folk’s home that specialized in Alzheimer’s – beautiful facility with a top-flight staff. They set cookies, coffee and a jug of juice by a wide view of rolling hills. We ignored the snacks. We looked at a hill. Two-hundred yards away, red and blue lights flashed in front of a glass house. I asked Sadie once why Horizon High had so many windows.
“It’s a cost savings measure,” she told me. “Sunlight reduces the electric bill.” Her lopsided smile slammed through my memories like a pickaxe. “But you’re asking an Econ teacher. If you’d married Miss Gilbert in Art, she’d have told you they’re ravishing.”
One o’clock was fifth period, which Sadie had free. Her turn for hall patrol in Wing E: no smoking in the boy’s room, no loitering. No mass murder.
That thought got me moving. Kennison stirred his coffee with a cookie fragment and brushed crumbs from his mustache. I stood at the absolute top of my five-foot-seven and spoke at the bottom of my voice. “Give it to me straight.”
His ample eyebrows and fleshy nose made me think of Groucho Marx glasses. “Davey, we got next to nothin’.”
“Gimme what’s next to the nothing, then.” I hit low. “You owe me, Ken.”
He didn’t. Not really. I’m a grief counselor for Plymouth PD. I knew every cop in that room, and I knew Ken would cave most easily – because I’d helped him through the fall-out of his divorce; because I’d seen him in tears; because we were old Army men, him a sergeant and me a lieutenant, and obeying a superior officer is a tough habit to break. Sadie always said I grow a full foot when I give commands. They work on everybody but her.
Ken tic’ed his neck sideways. We cut through the crowd. I saw Mick Halverson dialing his cell over and over. They’d told us not to do that, but I’d tried, too. Got Sadie’s voice mail – sultry, an adolescence of cigarettes: “I’m not available right now, but if you leave a message . . .” I left a message. I couldn’t remember what I said. Mick’s wife taught French. Sadie liked her.
Ken slid a door to a patio, and I slid it shut behind us. Fresh-stained boards parted for a rock garden that drooled water in a pond. Goldfish laced under floating flowers. Ken said, “You should sit.”
“SWAT found one dead.”
I sat. “Male or female?”
“Kid or adult?”
“You know better, Davey. No description.”
I threw up the lunch Sadie’d packed me. It splashed in the pond. “Sorry, fishies.”
“One. One’s good. There’s fifteen hundred people up there.”
“Where’d they find her?”
“Yeah. Sounds like the classrooms stayed secure.”
I rocked. “How much longer?”
“No telling. First sweep takes the longest. They wanna be thorough.” Ken choked my shoulder to stop the back-and-forth. “You don’t gotta freak out yet. I’ll let you know when. My word.”
He’d tell me himself that Sadie was dead. “Thanks, Ken.”
His radio fizzed. “Kenny, where are you? We got a bus.”
I was faster. I was the goddamn roadrunner. A bus meant survivors. I joined a throng that surged out the home’s front entrance. A yellow box of hope chugged down the hill. So slow, so slow – we all said it, said, “Another one!” when another bus appeared. And another. Another. The head bus found the bottom of the valley, crossed the home’s lot, parked cock-eyed and
sneezed open. I thought Sadie would be there, front of the line, but she wasn’t – some pimply, scrawny man-child. A woman screamed, “Timothy! Timothy!” and the yard became a
chorus of names. The next bus parked. The next. Names, embraces, relief as grief, sobs colliding off each other. I searched everywhere. I stood on a wooden bench and scanned. Looked for a crown of blond, listened for a deep cry of ‘David.’ Only Sadie calls me that. It’s Dave or Davey or Tomlinson to everybody else. So I knew, after the last of twenty buses docked and disgorged, I knew, even as I kept shouting, my throat getting dry, her name going raspy and dim, I knew, when Ken tried tugging me down, that she wasn’t there. “Sadie! Sadie Tomlinson!”
“Davey, I said she ain’t here. They took her to the -”
“She’s alive, Dave, she’s fine. They took her to the precinct. Come on with me.”
I clutched at Ken and got down. “Say that again.”
“They took -”
“Say she’s alive.”
“She’s alive. She’s fine.”
“Say it again. Say it ‘til I say stop.”
I never said stop, not the whole ride, and Ken never quit repeating his line, and whatever debt he might have owed me swayed in his favor forever as I nodded along like it was my new favorite tune.
Sadie and I met at a bar. Not supposed to be where you find your future wife, but I was there for a darts tournament, not a hook-up. A robust fogy in a wheelchair beat me by five points. I bought him a beer. He took me to a booth and introduced me to his daughter.
In movies, a guy sees a girl across a crowded room and she’s fuzzy and ephemeral. Wasn’t like that for us. Sadie shook my hand with a kung-fu grip and cursed like a trucker. I was keenly aware of her womanliness; she wore a yellow summer dress with a light sweater, and a diamond sparkled at her cleavage, but she drank three Coronas and said I’d be a better dart thrower if I quit favoring my left foot.
I do appreciate an eye for dart form. “Can’t help it. A chunk of it’s missing, courtesy of a pipe bomb in Kosovo.”
She didn’t blink – “How much got blown off?” – and drained a bottle like explosions were routine.
Her dad laughed. “Forgive Sadie. She’s desensitized to war stories, growing up with me.”
“Marines. Retired a Major.”
I quit eye-humping his daughter and examined empty space. It took every scrap of restraint I had not to salute. “Sir, forgive me for being so informal, sir.”
Sadie laughed – low, growly. “At ease, jackass. You didn’t answer me. You walk fine.”
“I run fine, too. It’s minor adjustments that hurt. Plus, the rain.”
Sadie looked outside at the downpour and tucked hair behind her ear. I love it when women do that, loved best how she did it. Distracted, a little sad.
The Major covered her free hand. “It’ll let up.”
She smiled mysteries, and those added to the laugh left me no choice but to get her number and ask her out. We swan dived into bed on our first date, and that’s not supposed to be what you do with your future wife, either, but we couldn’t help ourselves. After, curled together, another storm knocking at the window, I asked why she didn’t like the rain.
“The Major was a cop,” she said, voice firm and soft at once, a hefty hank of velvet. “A drug dealer he busted got paroled and broke into our house. Went for my room, but I’d snuck out. I was fourteen.” I heard her disgust, her shame – guilt that she hadn’t been there. “Dad took two in the abdomen and one in the spine. I found him on the front lawn at three a.m.”
“And it was raining,” I said.
Sadie rolled onto me. “Cats and dogs.”
I did my best to earn her like you earn a rank or a medal – hard work and wounds. The miracle was, she didn’t want my sweat or my blood. Took a few years to drill that through my head, but we got there.
When the Major shook my hand at the altar, he leaned tight and whispered so only I’d hear, “I’ll gut you and make you eat your entrails if you fuck her around.”
Which is military talk for, “Welcome to the family.”
I was out of the car when Ken tapped the breaks to park. I stifled an instinct to run: she didn’t need me panicked. The precinct and its stupid landscaping. It didn’t bother me when I came to work every morning, but it wasn’t often I had to speed-walk a town square to get to my not-dead wife. The struggle to believe her alive, not on a bus but alive, had temporarily obscured a very good question. “Why’s she here?”
“I’m not a hundred percent on that.”
“Gimme the percentage you have.”
Ken shrugged doubt and shouldered into the building, paving my way so I didn’t do something violent to an obstacle. “They’re saying she neutralized the shooter.”
I tied a knot with my forehead. “Who’s ‘they’?”
“SWAT. SWAT said, ‘Shooter neutralized by civilian Sadie Tomlinson. Escorting Sadie Tomlinson for debrief.’ Direct quote.”
“Neutralized him how? Sadie weighs a buck-twenty soaking wet. Unless the shooter was a girl –” But I saw Sadie then, through a conference room window. The sight of her detonated an H-bomb straight through my ribs. I’d never felt anything like it. Her white blouse blazed red. Her blond hair nested flecks of black. Her blue eyes anchored on me, and she knocked her chair over as she stood. I tore the room open. I got my arms around her. My legs gave out, and I took her to the ground wheezing, “Hi, hi, hi.”
She dug her nails into the skin of my neck. I pulled back and pawed at the blood. “Is this – did a doctor check you?”
“It’s not mine.” Her face was bright white and spotted with red, freckle-like dots. Sadie doesn’t have freckles.
“A doctor should –”
“We’ve got a medic en route, Dave,” said Lou Cameron, an assistant DA sitting across from Sadie’s empty spot.
I kissed her. We’re not PDA people, but right then I didn’t care. I tried to talk around her lips, tried to make sense, wound up with a word salad of concern. “You’re not –”, “I love –”, “I’m sor –”, “How’d you –”
Sadie climbed me, and we might’ve gone ahead and done it on the floor if Lou hadn’t interrupted. “Guys, we gotta get this statement. Half-life on memories is short.”
I tucked her to my chest like a backpack on backwards. “Gee sorry, Lou. Mind if I take one more minute?”
“David, relax.” Sadie sounded like herself – like a threat and a lullaby in a single throat. “He’s right. I’d like to start forgetting as soon as I can.”
I pulled a chair and monkeyed onto it, stuck her in the V of my legs facing out. I silently dared Lou to object, and he silently declined.
“When did you hear the shot?” Lou said, pen poised on a legal pad.
Sadie flinched. I made my arms a safety harness and said to Ken in the doorway, “Grab the spare shirt in my bottom drawer. And get her a soda, not diet. One with sugar.”
Ken got set to argue, he wanted to hear this, but he opted to follow orders.
Sadie pulled me tighter around her. “I was on hall duty.”
Lou made a note. “You do that every day?”
“Yeah. Fifth period. I think he waited for the classrooms to fill –”
“I’m gonna stop you there, Sadie, okay? I need you to stick to what you saw and what you heard. We can speculate later. You’re on hall duty, and you hear the shot.”
Sadie repeated, robotic: “I’m on hall duty, and I hear the shot.”
I pressed to the side of her neck, so I could go with her, and it was like ESP as she talked, as I watched it happen.
She came around the corner to the east entrance, thinking of firecrackers in toilets, ready to unleash some serious rage on the kids responsible. Instead, there was a girl lying face-up, blood spurting a red Old Faithful from a hole in her chest, impulses in scatter, horizontal jitterbug. A fair-haired boy dressed all in black stood without expression, tac vest loaded in ammo, holding a shotgun sawed so far down the barrel there was hardly a barrel left.
The Major had taken Sadie hunting when she was a kid. She knew guns like she knew Economics. Knew the girl, too – Cara Plimpton; she’d been on Sadie’s Academic Olympics team last year. Knew the gunman – Harrison Bane, a boy too pale for handsome, too weird for cool, too quiet for funny. A non-entity, a ghost. Why was he wearing a black beret? Sadie said, “Harrison?” He raised the shotgun, and Sadie did some fast reality math, tornadoed to the right.
The wall disintegrated. Plaster and dust and dead smells and sound. Sadie kicked off her shoes. She was a sprinter in high school and could really move it when she had to, and she had to, for two reasons: one, Harrison followed her, and two, classroom doors began to open.
“Shooter!” Sadie screamed, ping-ponging from one end of the hall to the other, shoving and raving at puzzled teachers, mainlining her voice full of I’m-serious. “Shooter in the hall! Shooter in the hall! Barricade! Barricade!”
Harrison’s next shot came so close that Sadie felt the heat. A locker ten inches to her left caved inward like a rhino had hit it. Shrapnel and buck shot polka-dotted a wide radius. Gabby Halverson peeked out of E220 – “Qu’est-ce qu’il y a –”
“Shooter, Gabby! Shooter!” Sadie shrieked, propelling Gabby inside. “Lock it up! Barricade!”
Harrison was getting frustrated. Sadie could tell, because his shots compressed. She ducked and crouched behind a support column in the middle of the hall. She’d remember it was covered in ads for Student Congress and Key Club. She’d remember wondering, ‘What’s Key Club?’ as she held her head, wood and sheetrock fluttering like snow. Shells clattered loudly to the floor.
The stairs were close, were twenty meters. A sawed-off was awkward to reload. She ran for it.
Bees buzzed past her, small caliber rounds. Handgun. Bullets shattered the bay windows that showcased a gorgeous view of the valley. Thick shards fell with a noise like chimes, but Sadie leaped, took eight stairs at once, landed on her bare feet right before the glass hit the tile. She overbalanced and sliced her hand. Harrison leaned over the banister – high ground, best vantage besides point-blank, so Sadie jumped eight more stairs and made it to ground level, tripping at the bottom, tumbling. She got up in a hurry. Teachers were coming out to investigate. Sadie screamed them inside. “Shooter! Shooter! Barricade!” Shots upstairs as Harrison tried to blow his way in. No-go. Horizon was a new school, opened two years ago – the year Sadie started teaching, the year she married me. All the modern amenities, including hardcore doors and a faculty trained to dive and barricade when they heard the word ‘shooter.’
Sadie ran and yelled – a bloody, skinny Paul Revere – until the whole wing was zipped up tighter than the cheerleaders’ sweaters. She picked a spot to stand, dead-center, room to book if she saw legs on the stairs or a shadow in the locker row. Her body did the panicking, knees and wrists and fingers and neck a xylophone of fear, but her head stayed cool, stayed on the next thing.
No legs, no shadow. The fire alarm. It looped a tea-kettle build of whooOOOP whooOOOP.
Sadie wasn’t a well-loved teacher. She chose the profession for the summers off, three months of uninterrupted reading, and led the Academic Olympics team to placate administrators. She considered the bulk of her duties, and the bulk of her students, mind-numbingly dull. Basic Economics: shadow prices, opportunity cost, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Her
first day, the captain of the baseball team hit on her – “What’s your stance on Statutory?” Sadie had the principal call his parents, and the jock dubbed her ‘Ice Queen.’ Sadie wrote her nickname under ‘Mrs. Tomlinson’ every single semester, a point of pride.
Which is why it surprised people that she went back upstairs, using a dank emergency stairwell; that she opened and stepped through a glassless exit, where Harrison might have been waiting, Elmer Fudd-style; that she did these things on nothing more than a hunch, the hunch that Harrison wanted to die – shy, dopey idiot – and he wanted to spread the privilege to as many as possible. The fire alarm would empty wings A through D onto the grounds, twelve hundred pieces of unarmed, unprepared civilian cannon fodder. So he’d be right around this corner here, down this hall, by the door he’d come in, by the lone person he’d managed to kill so far.
He was. He waded the red pool Cara lay in, slipped and about fell on his ass. Sadie nearly laughed at the failed machismo, at his skinny back heaving impatience, then walking toward his Grand Finale, shoulders high and righteous. She thought of me, apologized, opened a small cupboard, unclipped a chain, and stepped into another hundred meters of locker-lined walls. On her sneaking journey halfway to Harrison, she had a few seconds to wonder if it would hurt when he blew her apart. He pushed on the east door.
And Sadie said, good and loud, the whole wing would hear her, “You pathetic piece of shit.”
Harrison’s body stiffened – a concrete divider between this dimension and hell. His neck rotated. His face mixed hate and horror.
“C’mon,” she said, beckoning. She remembered me talking about amateurs and weapons. Add a little anger and the aim haywires.
Harrison whirled and fired. He took out a ceiling light, unnecessary thanks to endless glass and sunshine. Sadie forced a laugh and ran. Harrison charged her, emitting a manic kind of bugle call, as she raced him to the end of Wing E, to the corner she’d deserted, to the small cupboard with the heavy fire extinguisher she’d unlatched from its hook.
It shouldn’t have worked, she’d tell us. She should have dropped it or Harrison should have gotten a shot off or she should have tripped. But Sadie embraced the twenty-pound tank like an infant, took hold of the nozzle and closed her eyes so Harrison’s footsteps plud-plud-plud-plud and his bugle call ba-ga-da-ga-baaah gave her backhanded swing a kind of eco-location, sonar accuracy. She played tennis in college. She has a honey of a serve.
She felt the impact up her arm when Harrison’s nose smashed to a jigsaw. He dropped the shotgun and fell. Sadie kicked the weapon away and aimed for the soft part of his forehead. A mercy fog descended and didn’t let up until bits of brain flew in a sprinkler spray of chunks. Even then, she huddled, watched for twitches – ankles, fingertips, anything – and bashed them motionless. The SWAT team found her there forty-five minutes later, next to a pile of tenderized veal in black assault gear.
“You are the stupidest person in the galaxy,” I said. A paramedic sutured Sadie’s hand. She’d guzzled two Cokes, and my shirt fit her fine. I had my own chair to give the medic
room, but still draped around her from the side. I spoke directly into her ear. “You’re stupider than whatever worms eat.”
Lou turned his eighth page. “Was Harrison Bane in your class?”
“Yeah,” Sadie said. Tears leaked every few minutes, but they didn’t disrupt her voice. “Quiet kid.”
I couldn’t get the image out of my mind. Sadie drawing shotgun fire. “What were you thinking?”
Lou said, “Dave, zip the lip or you’re –”
“I wasn’t,” Sadie said. “I didn’t think. I just did it.” Her eyes poured faster.
I swiped my palms across her cheeks and chin, wiped her nose with my knuckle. “Okay, baby. Okay. Look at me, it’s over. I’m proud of you. I was being an asshole.”
The EMT snipped thread and asked, “Are you cold?”
Sadie nodded. I ripped my jacket off.
The medic stood. He was a mobile Empire State Building. I hadn’t noticed his height when he came in. “She should take it easy the next few days,” he told me.
“I’m right here,” Sadie grumbled.
He grinned at her. “You should take it easy.” I was used to guys grinning at my wife that way.
Didn’t mean I liked it. “Sure, buddy. We’ll put off the marathon. Thanks.”
Sadie rolled her eyes while the medic hauled out his equipment. The door clicked shut. “Subtle, David.”
Lou tapped the tape recorder. “We’re as good as done, I promise.”
Sadie and I made identical go-ahead signals and smiled when we realized it.
“Why didn’t you evacuate when you heard SWAT clearing the classrooms?”
“I didn’t hear them. That second blast made me damn near deaf for an hour. My ears are still ringing.”
“Why didn’t you –”
“What is this?” I said. “Are you looking for a man on the Grassy Knoll?”
Sadie scooted back to my lap. “Let him finish so we can get the fuck out of here.”
Her curse words were coming back. That appeased me for a while.
“Why didn’t you notify the other teachers the threat was over?”
She hesitated, shifted. “I needed to be sure he was dead.”
“Is that why you fought when the officers tried to remove you?”
“Last question, then you can go.” Lou put down his pen and reached across the table. “May I please shake the hand of the bravest woman I’ve ever met?”
She fumbled for my hand instead. “Take me home.”
Plymouth, Minnesota’s won awards for being the #1 best town in America and isn’t shy about bragging it up. While we drove Main’s mile of banners, I wondered if a school shooting meant they’d revoke the title. Our address hopped the city line to Wayzata, far enough from Sadie’s work and mine to let us forget the job when we left for the day. The property was a gift from the Major, three acres in a clutch of forest, a pond we skated on in winter. We built a two bedroom house with six years of my Army money and our bare hands. It hugged a rock wall and sat three stories high. Big garden, window boxes, covered porch, attic. Garlands of Sadie’s flowers hung from every square of glass. We knew it’d be a nightmare to heat the high ceilings, so we put fireplaces in the living room, dining room, master bedroom and bath. The guest room was a guest room; we didn’t want kids.
Sadie’s shaking lessened the moment she crossed the threshold, but in spite of this, and in spite of it being a pretty temperate October night, I hurried to light every fireplace, telling Sadie I’d fix her something to eat.
She examined her stitches. “I need a bath. There’s – my hair has . . .” I’d forgotten. Maybe she thought I didn’t know what the black flecks were. She was trying to tell me, but she got stuck, stuttered, “b-b-b-” until she dropped. She made horrible sounds.
“It’s okay. It’s okay, Sugar.” I picked her up, but she didn’t want to be carried, insisted on blundering beside me. I lit the fire and drew a bath. Sadie winced as she shrugged out of her clothes.
She held her left arm in a triangle. “I must’ve strained it.”
I imagined her swinging twenty pounds of metal into a running boy’s nose. “I’ll cook something.”
“No, come in with me.”
“Sade, you’ve gotta eat.”
“I will. After. Please?”
Naked and ‘please.’ Deadly. We took our usual positions, sharing the built-in seat, letting the whirlpool jets pass over us. Hot froth peppered our sinuses. I put a hand on her left shoulder and kneaded. She groaned – quiet groan.
I worked through muscle fibers strand by strand, taking my time. We had time. She’d earned us who knew how much more time today. My other hand strayed elsewhere. Sadie searched for me under the water. I hooked her uninjured arm around the back of my neck. “It’s about you tonight, okay?” I made her answer all vowels. When I got down to business – the real business, the fake freckles and the rubbery nubs of brain in her hair – she was a pliant creature moaning at my touch. And I teared up, no fighting it, tried to hide my own burbling nervous breakdown as I dried her, erection thick enough to chop trees, my limbs shivering water droplets into the towel, but Sadie knew. Of course Sadie knew. Marriage is cutting your heart out for someone else to guard, and she’s a fierce guard. Obviously.
“David. David, slow down.”
Patted every inch of her, wiped death away. Held it together until she yanked my head straight. I kissed her like a film in fast-forward, bucked her into the wall and held her up. I was featherweight champ in the Army. I’m short, but I’m strong. I wanted to be tender, gradual, but I was crying and she was crying, and we were fucking like my dick was a defibrillator and I could shock life back into her, though she wasn’t dead, the shooter was dead. She’d killed him. My baby bludgeoned him to hellfire, and the wall wouldn’t work for what I needed. I pulled out and carried her to bed, where I got proof of life in each airy scream.
I woke right before the alarm. When the gears click inside, preparing their soft buzz, it sounds a lot like a gun cocking. Most mornings, I can thwack snooze before the first noise happens. That morning, I beat the noise and pulled the plug.
She’d made a pillow of my stomach. My navel was a cup for her breath. No one would expect us at work today, but my legs still twitched for their miles. I shuffled from under her, gave her a real pillow to cuddle, squatted there a second, watched her sleep. A bad dream played behind her eyelids. The angle of her mouth betrayed a chase, a quicksand getaway. Sadie had enough material for nightmares. She still found the Major mostly dead on the lawn whenever it rained at night.
I pictured Harrison Bane. He was a shadow-man, I’d only heard description. I began with his face. I turned the shadow tequila sunrise colors, then did limbs. I disassembled him like a pup tent. Torso was last. Torso was tougher, so I brought a knife with me, and he begged. Sadie whinnied at a bad turn of events. I sang her some Bob Dylan. Best thing about Bob Dylan, you don’t need a singing voice for his songs. She unclenched, forehead smooth as a window. I kissed the surface and got dressed.
It’s pussy to love someone like that, my buddies said. Army guys, hard drinkers, fist fighters, love ‘ers and leave ‘ers – they learned fast to shut that shit up in my presence. I was raised by fosters, I witnessed my best friend’s death by machine gun, and I treated women like carnival rides. Sadie was my silk cocoon. I came out a moth, but she didn’t mind. She became the bare bulb I flew around. It’s pussy to love someone like that, so I’m a pussy and I’m proud. I don’t have anything else.
I stretched by the front door, thinking dark woods sounded right today, but when I opened up to the porch, a pop of white light blinded me. I didn’t have a weapon, which was lucky. My memory screamed, ‘Flash grenade!’ I’d have shot for sure.
“Is she injured?”
“Is she in shock?”
“Did she have martial arts training?”
“Did you teach her self-defense?”
“Does she have a history of violence?”
“Do you have a history of violence?”
I said words they couldn’t print and tripped backwards over my own feet. I shut them to the lawn where barking dogs should stay. Fantastic. Exactly what she needed. I did reconnaissance – forty-two messages in home voice mail, five news vans on our property, and thank the Great Whoever, Sadie still asleep.
I dialed with a force that fit a history of violence.
“Dispatch, this is -”
“Carla, it’s Dave Tomlinson. Can you give me the lead officer on shift, please?”
“Dave, how is she?”
I wouldn’t yell. I liked Carla. “She’s fine. She’s snoozing. Is it Schmitt this morning?”
“Yep, sure is. I’ll patch you. Give her my best.”
I didn’t like Schmitt, but I could fake it for one conversation. I gave him the rundown. He promised action. I stomped on the treadmill for four miles until I heard a flump at the doorstep.
Checking their distance: four vans and a baker’s dozen camera-toting, coffee-sipping jackals waited just over our property line. Brian Knowles, our paperboy, was getting interviewed by the more desperate reporters, while those with standards faked indifference and listened closely. I watched the drama through my rifle scope, dawn graying the sky, highlighting the powdered faces that made homes for my cross-hairs. I suppose I could’ve detached the scope from the gun.
Sadie gaped from our welcome mat, a close-up of blood-freckles, tear tracks and huge, bleary fear. I procrastinated coffee because the smell would wake her, rushed through a shower and changed. She’d kicked the covers off. I replaced them, noted a black-blue tint to her shoulder. In the living room, I claimed my chair like I would any morning.
“HERO,” said the headline. This wasn’t the local paper. This was the New York Times. “Economics teacher Sadie Tomlinson went to work yesterday occupied with thoughts of quizzes and midterms. She left partially deaf and forever a legend.” The-truth-lite, continued on page seven.
“Great, they got my zombie side.” I flapped the story shut. Sadie wore jeans and a t-shirt, the Wile E. Coyote slippers I gave her for Christmas as a joke. She sifted for the crossword puzzle.
“I’ll make breakfast. You want waffles, eggs?”
“It’s my turn.”
I headed for the kitchen. “Not today.”
She caught me by my back pockets. “Could we act normal?” Nosed between my shoulder blades. “Pretend it’s Saturday?”
Saturday meant cherry nut muffins. Sadie made them and the coffee. She did the crossword, cursing at it and erasing while I read students’ and colleagues’ glowing opinions of her that were almost uniformly bull. “Committed to her work,” “Has a smile for everybody,” “Totally the nicest person I’ve ever met.” Cara Plimpton got one paragraph – 4.0, wanted to be a vet.
I ditched the front section for sports. “How’s your arm?”
“Did the medic check it at all?”
“It’s a strain.” She went for a refill, though her cup still piped smoke. “You should work on the shelves today. You could finish.”
The fact that her denial was textbook did nothing for my worry. I was putting shelves into the walls of the study. They were nowhere near done. “What’ll you do?”
Stupid question. Sadie was buried in a book by nine. I left her in the living room and pounded nails, sanded boards. I turned to grab a drill and saw her in the desk chair, twirling the seat with a toe. She hated noise while she read, just like I hated missing my morning run. Hours like that, then a break for lunch. She followed when I made sandwiches and followed me back to the study after. Sadie was many things, but a clinger wasn’t one of them. I could remember the same sentiment, the visceral need for other warm bodies nearby. In war, that’s not a tall order. In marriage, it shouldn’t be either.
Our cells rang and rang. We checked the numbers but didn’t answer. ‘Til she answered.
“Hey, Dad. No. Yes. Fine, no. I think I strained my shoulder.”
I smiled. Any Saturday.
“I’m not sure yet. Yeah, if y-. Seven’s fine.” She laughed and hung up. “Such a chatty son of a bitch.”
“Coming for dinner?”
“Bringing dinner.” She tapped buttons. “The station keeps calling me.”
“What do they want?”
Sadie rarely sounded small. I went and sat with her on the sofa. “A walk-through, probably. Have you show them what happened and where.”
Sadie never curled up to me like a kid trying to hide. “They can’t make me, can they?”
Damn it. “Yeah, baby. They can. They’d get a subpoena.”
“Will you be there?”
“They’d have to taser me to keep me away.”
“I should’ve . . .” She got two good grips on my shirt.
“Should’ve what? Huh?”
“It should’ve been me.”
I felt relief so acute it was painful. Finally, something I had a speech for. “It’s not wrong to be glad you’re alive. I’m glad you’re alive. It doesn’t mean we’re glad Cara’s dead. Those’re two different things.”
Sadie thrashed against my ribs – part disagreement, part an attempt to burrow inside. I got my own good grip and held her.
While Sadie set the table, I dialed Lou Cameron’s extension at work and stated the terms. “We do it once, in and out. Ten minutes, tops. I’ll be timing it.”
Lou tried his one-of-the-guys voice. “Davey, I don’t want to put her through -”
“I know you don’t, but you’re still going to do it, aren’t you?”
Boxing wisdom states that when the head is guarded, you go for the gut. “Sadie made you strawberry pie when your mother died, because she remembered you liked it at the potluck.” Ding-ding! TKO! “Ten minutes.”
I could hear him nodding. “Ten minutes.” He rattled off where to meet and when. The doorbell rang. I said goodbye, answered the door, and said hello.
“The hyenas have your Army record.” The Major handed me bags of Chinese.
“What’d they ask you?”
“Whether you beat my daughter.”
The Major got a hell of a settlement out of the city. A flunky in the Records Department sold officers’ addresses, and Internal Affairs couldn’t find a swatch of cloth to cover its ass. Which meant the Major sent Sadie to college, hired a physical therapist and chauffer, and installed a home gym that pretty much made me faint the first time I saw it. Which in turn meant the Major – with his crew cut and Superman jaw – looked like he’d leap from his wheelchair any second and bench-press the sofa for fun.
Especially when he was angry. “How is she?”
Sadie hitched a hip on the dining room wall. “She’s fine, Dad.”
I used to think it was hilarious how the Major transformed in Sadie’s presence, genuine happiness on features meant to scowl. Until I realized I do it, too.
“You’re lying to me.” The Major wheeled close for his kiss on the cheek.
“Yep.” She pecked.
I unpacked. “Sir, were you intending to feed a regiment?”
“Figured you kids wouldn’t be grocery-bound. If you need any errands run, let me know. Keaton gets bored waxing the car.”
Sadie divided rice, poured orange chicken on mine, beef and broccoli on the Major’s, kung pao for herself. “I’m not letting this make me a prisoner.”
“Not what I’m saying, Sadie Mae. I’m saying if you need to lay low and recover, you damn well lay low and recover.”
She split a pair of chopsticks like enemy bones. “Why is everyone treating me like a goddamn porcelain doll? I killed that kid.” Her body seemed to jolt. Gone-over shock resurfaced. I tried to touch her, but she shied from me, picked up silverware and faked fine. The Major baked her with scrutiny for several seconds. Sadie said, “What?”
The Major placed his right elbow on the table and hitched his sleeve. “Remember this?” A tattoo of five doves in flight covered his wrist.
“That’s not -”
“You’ll kindly listen to this story again, my dear.”
I don’t like contradicting Sadie’s dad. It goes against the molten core of my moral code, but – “If she doesn’t want to hear it, sir, I suggest you save it for another day.” The Major wasn’t used to insubordination, either, and told me so with a look.
Sadie laughed – miserably, but she laughed. And budged her chair closer to mine. “Christ, guys. Put ‘em away. The tape measure’s not long enough.”
We all laughed, then. Wholesome family penis humor. I put my arm around her.
Battle stories don’t dress up. The Major took a breath that reached a little deeper than normal and spat facts: “A sniper up a tree put four in my friend’s chest. Pete Rathjen. We were in retreat, double-timing, but Peteybird was our squad’s pet. Could make you laugh ‘til you cried.” The Major’s left hand palmed flat to the table, but it signaled ‘double-time’, then ‘rear guard.’ I wondered if the pores of that hand felt thick jungle humidity and the wet sting of slouching leaves. “So I picked him up. He was a flyweight like your husband there, one-sixty at the outside. I ran fast enough to win a goddamn Olympic gold medal. They gave me a Silver Star. Why d’you suppose I got this tattoo?”
Sadie squeezed my knee. I said, “Sir -”
“Because five other boys died giving me cover. They went one to my right, one to my left, one to my rear, and if a man fell, another took his place. Two miles. Pete Rathjen lived to be fifty-nine. Cancer got him. I was there when he went. Last thing he did in this mortal coil was touch the doves and say, ‘I hate collateral damage.’”
“That’s enough, Major.”
Sadie muttered, “Let him talk.”
“You’re shaking again.”
I gave her my sweatshirt. And I lit the fireplace.
The Major dipped an egg roll in hot mustard, stirred like the sauce was a magic fountain where the past reflected and made sense. “People like the word ‘hero.’ Gives ‘em a nice warm fuzzy. But the hidden definition of ‘hero’ is somebody who doesn’t sleep.” Sadie guarded his heart, too, like a lioness. What she’d needed in return was our protection, and we’d failed her. The Major knew this like I knew it. He was saying he was sorry. “We’re all porcelain dolls underneath. Dave and I have training on our side. You minimized casualties, performed recon, improvised a weapon, and delivered a kill strike wearing heels and a skirt.”
“I kicked off the heels,” Sadie corrected.
The Major and I burst out laughing. Sadie smiled.
“Papers get it wrong,” the Major said. “Count on it. They’re working with the wrong definitions. You do whatever it takes, Sadie Mae. You lean as hard as you want on that boy.” The Major pointed at me. “And you, Lieutenant, bear up.”
Against the table, palm-down, I signaled ‘all-clear’. The Major saw, but for Sadie’s sake I answered out loud. “Yes, sir.”
. . . . . . .
We pulled into the old folks’ home the next day at noon. I told Sadie about Ken and the crowd, the patio and the fish pond. I said I hoped koi weren’t allergic to vomit. Lou stood by an official city SUV. Kennison had tagged along, and so had a stranger in a suit. “Shit.”
“What is it?”
“Lawyer. He’s got the requisite gavel up his ass.”
We both connected a lawyer to the morning’s paper, which said Cara’s family intended to sue the Plymouth school system for negligence. “Where’s that pond? I need to throw up.” She’d turned china white.
“Sadie, listen. This is the last time you have to tell it. The reporters can go to hell. But this is the law.” She really did look sick. “I can get it postponed if -”
“No. Let’s go.” The Major possessed her face.
Lou and Ken met our approach with appropriate shame. “DA told us to cooperate,” Lou said, followed by, “Sadie and Dave Tomlinson, Bill Spell.”
“William,” said the suit, offering me his manicure. “Pleasure.” I squeezed to show him I could snap. Spell was a gaunt, fey forty-something. I figured he’d swung a lot of golf clubs but not a single fist. I put myself between Sadie and Spell in the SUV, but he still tried. “I hear you were acquainted with Cara.”
“Don’t talk, Sadie.” For once, a direct order did the trick. She took my hand.
Guards waved Kennison past check-in, while Lou said from the passenger seat, “As discussed, Mr. Spell, you are here in an observational capacity only.”
“Just making conversation.”
“Well, don’t,” I said. “I’m a tad protective.”
“Yes, I hear you almost went Section 8 after your buddy died. You got counseling, correct? Found a new career?”
Sadie used her nails and made moons on my fingers. My ego went out the window, fluttering like loose paper.
Spell gave up.
Horizon had an infinity of yellow lines ordering ‘Do Not Cross’ by the main entrance. We drove over sidewalks and stopped beside the flag flying half-mast. Sadie moved like an unoiled machine as she got out of the car. Kennison used a key. I was losing circulation in my fingers.
“Why are we going in here?” Sadie said.
Lou answered. “Avoids the broken glass.” He gestured to lead the way. Sadie and I stepped forward. “Dave, it’d be better -” I waited. He’d have to tell me. “Sadie should take us through.”
Porcelain faked bulletproof for our audience. She dropped my hand and marched.
We had to hurry to keep up. I keyed my watch’s countdown when she struck for Wing E with jet fuel in her knees, her footsteps a cadence: A little bird with a little bill/Was sittin’ on my
windowsill/I lured him in with a piece of bread/And then I smashed his little head. Stink of a slaughterhouse, getting nearer. Sadie’s breathing matched her pace, then outpaced it. She halted so suddenly, I almost bumped into her.
“Sade?” I said.
She didn’t seem to hear. To our left was the door she’d snuck through. ‘Emergency Only – Alarm Will Sound.’ And here was the alarm, handle still hanging. The compartment for the fire extinguisher stood empty, with an iron chain dangling like a lifeline to dead air. Beneath this, a black-maroon Rorschach leered chicklet bits of bone and oxidized brain matter. But Sadie wasn’t looking at the corner where she’d killed him. She was looking at another stain straight ahead, in the prism of hallway windows, reflective metal lockers. A quart of dried-up red on the floor. Sadie made a choking sound.
“You were here?” Lou asked.
Spell sniped, “How about she tells us?”
“I was there.” Sadie pointed. She laughed. “Cara looked like a fish.”
I was not a fan of that laugh. “Hey -”
“Where’s ‘there’?” Lou glared at me.
Sadie went to Cara’s blood and paused, went left to the corner she’d turned. “Here.”
Lou took notes. “What next, Sadie?”
“I ran.” She walked. The corridor appeared endless, but the meters were a perfect hundred. The track team ran halls in winter. “Mr. Lee, he -” Sadie beat a closed classroom door. “Shooter!” She shook her head once, hard, like the memory would fall out of her ear and she could hand it over. “Shooter, Frank! Shooter in the hall!” Sadie ran to the opposite wall, to an open door, and clapped it closed. Only the lawyers were confused. Kennison and I chased her to a mangled locker, where Sadie hollered and careened forward, feeling bygone heat and blind shrapnel. She treated my touch like a bullet and cringed, cringed – behind a pillar that looked like an apple core ravaged by worms. She frowned at a Key Club ad that wasn’t there anymore. I knelt in front of her, but she didn’t see me.
“Guys, that’s it!” I hollered, as Lou and Spell flapped gums Ken, who glowered at them. “Sadie? Sugar? That’s plenty, Sadie. You did great. Come on back.” Her body tweaked at some phantom sound. The shells – tatta-tat. It’s not a good idea to fight the memories at full-strength, but she was hyperventilating, ducking from ghost tufts of disgorged pillar. She was estimating distance and odds of survival to a set of stairs that no longer ended in smooth tile but in chunks of glass that twinkled on the landing like Northern Lights. I grabbed her chin and screamed at full combat volume, “SADIE!”
It only half-worked. Her body slumped, adrenal overload, but she still tried to crawl for her life. I trapped her. She wrestled, weak, yelling relentlessly, “Shooter! Shooter!” Lou and Spell looked down on us in revulsion.
“Fuck off,” I said. “Go lick a blood stain, you fucking ghouls.”
They left us there. Sadie’s warning cries gradually loosened to what lay underneath. I was a safe cage, a rocking chair.
“I’m sorry, David, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay, it’s okay, you did good, you did a good thing.”
Her face tilted and begged that I read something she couldn’t say out loud – something with claws and teeth, something tearing its way out of her.
My watch beeped. Sadie jumped, and her body wilted further. I tried to carry her. She didn’t allow it. Her knees folded, and I took most of her weight.
Ken and the lawyers stood by Cara’s blood. “Sadie,” said Lou, “just one -”
“No,” I said.
“Where were you standing?”
“She answered that.”
Ken gawked at the floor like it was a Magic Eye poster. “Davey, it don’t add up.”
Lou blocked me; I almost admired the balls. “Sadie, show me where you stood. Please, okay?” Lou’s tone belonged on a pre-school cartoon.
Sadie locked her legs and snarled, “I beat his brains in.”
“Yes,” Spell said, “we know. The dead tell no tales, right?” She left my hold and pivoted and shoved him. Shock stupefied me. Sadie didn’t do things like that. Sadie was practical. My mind grasped for what I’d missed, but Spell turned rabid and red-faced. “Whose footprints are these?” he said, pointing at the floor. “Size nine. Cara was size five.” Spell’s thin mask of patience disintegrated. He grabbed Sadie’s bad arm and wrenched her toward the prints. She yelped.
My vision went silver. I don’t remember moving. Next I knew, I had him backed against sunlight. I saw hornet’s nest drywall. I saw a larynx close to cracking. I saw Harrison Bane.
Ken tried. “Davey, let him go.”
“It makes perfect sense,” Lou said. His pen scratched in a fury. “She stepped in the puddle first. She came further than she thought, got in the blood, then ran.”
“David.” Sadie’s breath on my neck.
I concentrated to open my fist. Spell sank and mouthed the word ‘sue.’
“You assaulted his wife, William.” Which wasn’t quite true, but Lou was speaking Lawyer. The truth had nothing to do with it.
Our evening reminded me of bad marriages. Sadie wouldn’t eat and spent over an hour in the bathtub, alone. I finished the shelves. Kept looking over my shoulder, but she didn’t come down. Like a treaty – she wouldn’t mention out-of-place shoes, I wouldn’t mention out-of-character shoves. A man asks himself every day, how much can I bury? Answer is, a lot. Since I met Sadie, I make sure to ask myself, what am I burying with it?
I went upstairs to make her talk and found her curled up in a ball on our bed, holding bundles of her hair, not making a sound. I forgot talking, focused on unbending elbows and knees, getting them around me. And the sex just happened, like it does when you’re alive and in love, like Cara Plimpton would never know, because she’d died a mousy, awkward virgin, the kind Sadie had been in every adolescent photo I’d seen of her. To die sixteen, full of promise, no one to hold on to, nothing but size 9 high heel prints and a red smear to mark where she fell. I thought, For you, Cara, and licked the sweat off Sadie’s temple as she came.
I woke at 5 a.m. by habit. The alarm was still un-plugged. I’d dreamed machine guns – hadn’t had that one in a while. Sadie wasn’t beside me. Blue light painted a trail to the living room.
The muted TV showed an airplane in a field. Sadie sat at the bay window with her forehead against the frame. “Crash in Oklahoma,” she said. “The vans left to cover it. Pilot landed in a wheat field. A wing sheared off, and ten died, but he saved eighty people.” Tears spilled. “Lucky bastard.”
I clicked the remote to make darkness. The Major gave us some beautiful property. Sitting with her, I could smell shedding hickory and dying leaves even through the panes. I wanted to say anything else. “You have to tell me.” She gagged, wept quietly. I lifted and turned her. Her chin had a shadowed bruise in the shape of my thumb print. “Sade, you have to tell me what you’re leaving out. It’s killing you.”
She groaned like a haunted house’s floorboards. I couldn’t bury us, I wouldn’t. “Did you see her get shot, baby? Is that it? Point-blank with a shotgun is terrifying. I’ve been there, too.”
“It was just me and her.” Sadie’s eyes raised. Glassy. Cautious. “In the hall.”
Her. “You and Cara?”
“She had a pass. She forgot a book.”
I could see them, could hear Cara explaining. ‘Hey, Mrs. Tomlinson. Yeah, got it right here.’
“She was asking what I thought about Debate Team. If I thought it was worth the commitment.” Sadie kneaded at the carpet. “I saw him at the door. I said his name. He pointed the gun at me, at my stomach.” She swallowed.
I was breathing too fast, so I slowed it. I could do that. I’d been trained to do that. “Tell me.”
Wing E at one-thirty glowed white with afternoon. “Debate’s useful if you’re looking at law school, I guess.” Cara made a note – law school – on a college-lined sheet of notebook paper. Sadie hid a smile and saw the entrance doors wink at a new arrival. She squinted. “Harrison?”
Time went underwater, as a shotgun muzzle rose like Harrison’s third depthless eye. Sun sparked off the pump gauge, and his Army surplus boots sounded farty on the tile. Absurdly, Sadie thought of opportunity cost, the definition – the value of that which must be given up to
acquire or achieve something. Numbers scraped edges in her head: 1,400 students, 150 faculty and staff, 2 here and now.
Then the blast, and Cara burst like she’d been unbuttoned. She looked surprised, the way a baby does at an exploding balloon, as Sadie kicked off her shoes and ran to warn the others.
. . . . . . .
“I pushed her. I didn’t think about it. I pushed her in front of me, and he shot, and I ran.”
Sadie watched me. She saw my awe and wanted to know what it meant. I put my fingers to her temples, flattened palms to her cheeks, cursed this rotten world, and said, “Good.” I shook her. “Good.” Making myself a cradle, thinking of the Major in his double-time retreat, of me and machine gun fire and my friend standing in the way, of how war is hell and life is war and sanity is the stuff we do every day to deny those facts. How the math doesn’t work, because what would I do for this single human being, how far would I go?
I pictured the field where the plane had crashed, pictured it shorn and blank and covered in a crowd of people. Harrison Bane had his shotgun, and he fired into masses thirty wide and fifty deep, Sadie at the very back. And for every person who fell who I didn’t love, I said, “Good,” while Sadie cried herself to a hero’s troubled sleep.
Gina Wohlsdorf lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her work has appeared in The Storyteller and is upcoming in Gambling the Aisle and Meridian. She is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Virginia.
Photo by: Renée Beaucheane