They had planned it well, I’ll give them that.
That’s what I was thinking to myself as I huddled in a stranger’s basement with my best friend and several other trick-or-treaters I didn’t know. My Jason Vorhees costume seemed utterly preposterous given the circumstances. My mask and plastic machete had been abandoned upstairs.
“Josh, do you think they’re gone yet?” whispered my best friend Kenton into my ear. The sound of his voice, shaky and breathless, somehow made my own already hammering heart speed up even more. I turned my head and wiped some of the sweat from my eyes with a trembling hand. Kenton, the zombie costume he was wearing wrinkled absurdly around him as he knelt next to me, was visibly shaking and blinking rapidly.
I shook my head. I opened my mouth to answer and realized I was chewing my lower lip, hard. A habit I had broken more than a year ago, six months after Mom kicked Dad out for good. Like I said, I broke that habit, finally, or so I had thought. Now I think it was bleeding, just like it used to. “I heard more shots just a few minutes ago,” I said to Kenton. “They still sounded close, though not like the first ones.”
The owner of the house, a lady older than my grandmother, was huddling with us, alternately attempting to feebly reassure us, especially the youngest two kids, and, I think, praying.
Then we heard more loud bangs, gunshots, very close this time. They made my ears ring. My bladder came very, very close to releasing. I could feel the pressure, squeezing and pushing. I clenched the muscle down there, real hard. The sound of breaking glass accompanied the shots this time, seemingly from upstairs inside the house.
The owner of the house covered her ears and became very pale. She was shaking her head slowly. Another kid about my age, 14, brown hair like my own but curly instead of straight, and a much smaller nose, wide mouth, big lips, was down there with us. A kid I didn’t know but that happened to be on the doorstep at the same moment when it all started. He crawled over next to the old lady. Maybe to offer support. Maybe to try and find some.
I heard voices. Some in English, some in another language. I didn’t have a clue which one. It wasn’t French, and it wasn’t German, I’d have recognized those. The voices faded, and it became quiet again.
I checked my phone for the tenth time. It still showed no signal. I raised my eyebrows and gestured with my phone at Kenton. He hassled his out of his pants pocket underneath his costume and looked at it. He was on a different carrier, so I figured it was maybe worth a shot. He shook his head. “Nope, still nothing,” he said. I chewed my lip and tasted blood.
The other kid, the one about my age over by the woman, saw this and pulled out his own phone. He looked at it then looked at me. His eyes told me before his head shake. No signal.
They must have taken out the cell tower at the same time. It was the only thing I could figure. Almost right at the same time they shot up all those poor people walking down the street, the parents taking their kids around to houses or the kids themselves trying to fill up their bags with Halloween candy.
Of course, none of us, kids or adults, knew what was going on at first, when it started. That’s what I meant when I said they had planned it well. Right on Halloween evening, during the busiest part of trick-or-treating. They drove up in cars or trucks, everywhere it seemed, lots of them. Three or four of them in each vehicle. Then a few more jogged or cycled in to join them. One guy was even on a skateboard. They all stood there looking at each other, masked men in black and beige clothes, carrying big guns.
They didn’t seem nervous or worried, or in a hurry. They stood there. Waiting.
Most of us on the street, kids and adults, stopped and watched them, wondering what the Halloween prank was all about. It seemed elaborate. Well staged.
Then, at the same moment, on an unseen signal, they began shooting.
Not randomly. Carefully. Taking aim at all the people, one after another, and shooting.
Of course, people screamed and fell. Blood flowed.
But most of us, me included, just watched. We continued to be certain it was all part of some Halloween prank.
I think that’s why they were able to do what they did, why people didn’t run and hide immediately, like they would have under any other circumstances. This was Halloween. You expected weird stuff. You expected fake blood. You knew it wasn’t real.
Except, now it was.
I watched the grisly action from the old lady’s porch, Kenton beside me. One of the men turned his gun slightly and fired again, hitting a man walking with his costumed six year old down the street. The man fell, groaned, then became silent. The little kid’s eyes became, well, I’ve never in my life seen a look like that. Then he began screaming. And screaming and screaming and screaming.
That’s when the queasy feeling that something here wasn’t right turned into complete and total horror.
“Holy shit!” I yelled. “This is real!”
The old lady seemed to have figured that out long before all of us kids on her porch. I realized only then that she had been gesturing and yelling for the last half minute. “Get in here! Get in here! Get downstairs! Hurry!” She was pushing some of us, as hard as a very old woman can push, towards her basement stairs, mumbling something like, “No, not again. Not here.”
So we sat there. The air smelled like fear and sweat and urine. Maybe I had managed to hold it, but someone else obviously wasn’t so lucky.
The woman squeezed her eyes shut, then opened them, and tried to stand up. The boy next to her jumped to his feet and helped her rise. She moved purposefully towards the far corner of the basement and returned a moment later with an ancient looking radio, which she asked one of the little kids to plug into the socket behind where he was sitting. The little guy seemed glad of something useful to do, and quickly plugged it in.
She clicked the dial and began turning the tuning knob until the static changed into voices. “...again, everyone in the affected area is warned to stay inside, find somewhere safe. If you are caught outside, find a safe spot, try not to be visible. Remove any brightly coloured clothes or costumes. Do not engage the gunmen in any way. The police and the armed services are on their way or actively engaged with the perpetrators. Everyone needs to lock their doors and windows and find the safest part of the building they are currently in. Stay away from doors and windows. I repeat,” the announcer continued, “we have no information at this time who these people are, how many there are of them, or how many people they have shot. We know they are highly organized and have carried out what appears to be a coordinated attack on several of the busiest neighbourhoods in the city.”
The announcer droned on. I hadn’t realized I was squeezing Kenton’s upper arm until he told me to let go because it was hurting.
Kenton pushed some of his dirty blond hair back up off his forehead to reveal his eyes, looking a paler shade of brown than I was used to. “We’ll be okay,” he said to me. “All we need to do is wait it out until the good guys get here. You just watch.”
That was Kenton being Kenton. He was always braver than me. More able to deal with new situations. Ever since we were both ten years old. Whether it was mean kids on the playground or helping me put an ice-pack on my arm or leg or back or face after Dad had another go at me, he was the one that seemed to be in control, to manage his emotions, to deal with whatever came our way.
Someday I’d like to learn to do that.
Instead, I sat here, trying not to cry, trying not to pee my pants, feeling like I was six years old again, hiding in my closet or under my bed, my little brother in relative safety behind me, while my dad yelled and raged and kicked holes in doors and threw whatever was nearby. Every muscle in my body was tense. Instead of squeezing Kenton’s arm, I was now squeezing my knees, my arms around them as I pulled them tight into me, sitting on the cold concrete floor.
So much for trying not to cry. Now Kenton, or that other kid a few feet away, were going to see I’m just a scared little coward instead of a teenager.
I thought I was over this feeling. I thought that was the past. I thought feeling hopeless and helpless and scared and useless was something I’d spent the last year fixing. Now I realized, very suddenly, it was all a facade. I just managed because life had been too easy, what with everyone watching out for me so closely, protecting me. Not because I had figured out how to deal with all my feelings, but simply because I had been insulated from them.
I wiped the tears away and looked around, wondering who was watching me make a fool of myself, and was surprised to see that the answer was nobody. Though I did see Kenton and that other kid my age, the one who helped the lady stand up earlier, glancing at me once or twice. Just great.
I tried to distract myself. I listened to the announcer talk about how the police were in a fire fight in a different neighbourhood and had shot several of the armed men. I watched the three younger kids around me, the other ones who were unlucky enough to be on the porch with me and Kenton and the other kid my age.
One of the younger kids, the oldest of the group, about eleven years old, was sitting much like I was, arms wrapped around his raised knees, head down, eyes closed, slowly rocking back and forth. He reminded me of my little brother.
I stopped breathing as it hit me, it felt like my heart stopped too. My lungs, my heart, my stomach felt like some giant was squeezing them hard. Squeezing and squeezing until they’d burst. I must have made some kind of weird noise, because the next thing I realized was Kenton holding my shoulder and saying, “Josh, what is it? What?”
I looked around. Everyone was looking at me. Even the old lady. I turned to Kenton and somehow, even though my lungs were still being squeezed, I managed one word. “Bradley,” I said.
I watched Kenton’s eyes widen as he realized what I had figured out.
My little brother. Bradley. Home alone after my mom took him out trick-or-treating just a bit earlier this evening, before she had to leave for work. Home alone, at eleven years old, for the very first time in his life, Mom having finally agreed to allow this while I was out trick-or-treating with Kenton.
Oh god, he must be terrified.
If I felt like this, he must be ten times worse. A hundred times.
I was older, and with people. He was only eleven. He was all alone.
I can’t even imagine.
And it’s my job to protect him. It’s always been my job. Always.
And here I sat, frozen. Crying and feeling useless and helpless.
I gnawed savagely on my lip, not even feeling it anymore, the blood flowing steadily across my tongue while I imagined him hiding under the couch in the basement, frozen in fear, like when Dad was around.
I looked at Kenton. He looked lost. He looked younger at this moment than he did at ten years old, the day I met him.
I was scared. I was so, so scared. So cowardly, so helpless. But, somehow, I managed to say what needed to be said. “Kenton, I have to go to him. I have to.”
Kenton looked at me the way I knew he would. Then he responded the way I knew he would respond. “No,” he said, “you don’t. You can’t.”
The other kid, the one my age, was looking back and forth at me and Kenton, his eyes wide. He didn’t know exactly what was going on, but he seemed to have figured out some of it.
So had the old lady. She was no dummy. “You, young man, are not going anywhere. You, all of you, are staying here, and safe, until this is taken care of.”
I shook my head. Both at Kenton and at the old lady. Maybe at the other kid too, who seemed to be shaking his head in horror at me. “No. You don’t get it. I have to. I have to! It’s my little brother. He’s alone. He’s all alone. You don’t know him. You don’t know what he’s feeling. You don’t know what we’ve been through....” I couldn’t continue.
I somehow struggled to my feet, holding the concrete wall. My heart thundered in my ears. I couldn’t do it, but I had to.
“I told you to stay put, young man,” the old lady said firmly. “You don’t know what it’s like out there. You don’t know what can happen.” The look on her face told me that she, for whatever reason, did know what it was like.
A loud smashing noise, the locked front door upstairs giving way, suddenly made up all our minds for us.
The lady was on her feet much faster than I thought possible for someone her age. Now she was even helping the younger two kids to their feet. “The window, to the back yard, Go. Go!! To the garage!!”
At the window, the other older kid reached up high and pulled open the latch, then pushed the window open and punched through the screen. I wasn’t sure we could fit. It was a small basement window.
I forced myself to stand between the other kid and Kenton, despite my sickening fear telling me to go hide under the bench in the corner. They were on either side of the window, I was facing it. They nodded at each other, then at me, and I stepped into their interlocked hands and boosted myself up. I looked around the back yard, the noises upstairs making me far less cautious than I probably should have been. Then, not seeing anyone, I grabbed the sides of the frame and with help from below I pulled myself onto the grass in the back yard and quickly turned around.
“The little kids!” I said, probably too loudly.
The girl in the ballerina costume came through first, pushed from behind and pulled by me. I put her tightly against the side of the house, looked around again, told her not to move a muscle, then reached back down to the window. A very frightened looking Batman came next, seven years old. He was followed by the kid that had reminded me of Bradley, sitting at home all alone. Then the woman. That took considerably more work. She was bigger, heavier, and far less flexible than the kids.
Finally she was through. She may be old, but I could tell she knew things. She looked in places I hadn’t. She considered spots I ignored, then she gathered the little ones, gave them quick instructions, and they ran across the small lawn and into the door of the garage. Just before she moved, she said to me, “Follow as soon as everyone is through.”
I had no intention of doing that though. As soon as Kenton and the other kid were safe, I was headed home. I had to help Bradley. No matter how scared I was.
Kenton squirmed through next, the kid pushing from below and me pulling hard on his arms. I knew why he came first. He wanted to stop me from going home.
It wasn’t going to work.
Kenton and I reached back through just as the door at the top of the stairs began splintering, and we pulled the other kid through and to the side of the window against the house a split second we could see the shadows of the intruders downstairs, looking for more victims. I heard them talk to each other in that language I didn’t know.
I looked at Kenton. He looked at me. I made sure my expression told him my intentions.
His shoulders sagged. “Okay,” he whispered. “Let’s go.” He looked awful. More scared than I felt.
I was, for a moment, confused. Then angry. “No, you idiot,” I said much too loudly. “You go to the garage. He’s my brother, not yours. I need to protect him. I’ve always protected him. You need to stay safe.”
Kenton just looked at me the way I looked at him a few seconds ago. Resolute, stubborn. “And I’m your best friend. I need to protect you. I’ve always protected you. You go, I go. Anyway, he’s almost my little brother, too.”
This time it was my shoulders that sagged in defeat. He was right. I looked around again, and turned towards the garage, intending to go between it and the fence and into the back alley, hoping there would be fewer dangers there. I was thinking of sneaking from yard to yard along the alleys all the way from here to home. I hadn’t figured out how to cross the streets yet. The glare in my eyes from above told me the street lights were all still on. We’d be real obvious targets.
Shuffling carefully, I made my way through the long grass between the garage and fence, then stopped suddenly before I moved out of the protection the little area offered and into the alley. I braced myself slightly, and felt an elbow and ribs hit me in my back. Kenton, who was following me very closely, had bumped into me. I pretty much expected him to. What I didn’t expect is for him to bump me a second time, so I had relaxed and therefore almost lost my balance and fell into the alley.
I turned around to look at Kenton, intending to ask him what happened, but I figured it out as soon as I looked backwards. When I stopped suddenly, it caused Kenton to bump me, causing the other kid to bump Kenton, making Kenton bump me again.
“What are you doing here?” I asked the other kid. I think my whispered voice came across the wrong way from his surprised reaction.
“Honestly?” he said, his face inscrutable behind his alien creature makeup.
“I have no fucking idea.” He looked up and right, at nothing, then back at me. “But I heard you guys talking. So, I’m going too. It just seems right. I’m not so good at doing what’s right. Maybe it’s time I should change that.”
I looked at him. He looked at me. For long seconds. Then I just shrugged and turned around again, peering into the dark alley. He seemed pretty good at doing what’s right from what I saw earlier, helping the lady, helping us with the kids. I couldn’t figure it out. But I didn’t really have a lot of time to worry about that right now, so I didn’t.
I turned my head back towards him, “I’m Josh. He’s Kenton.”
The kid nodded, and seemed to force a smile. “And I’m scared.” He was showing a lopsided, scared and forced grin. My eyes widened. A joke? How had he managed a joke? I was so far from joking that it was hard to even describe it. I found myself giving him some grudging respect, even if he did claim he didn’t do the right thing very often. He continued, “Sorry, I make stupid jokes when I’m feeling...scared. When...like when I don’t know what to do.” He looked like he had just made a tough admission. “I’m Chris,” he finished.
I just nodded and turned back to peer into the alley.
I saw a shadow down at the end of the alley, in the street, moving away. I waited for ten long seconds to see if it would return, looked around again, then dashed as fast and quietly as I could to the next house, and crouched between a parked camping trailer and an old car., the gravel of the parking pad biting into my knees and the metal of the siding on the camping trailer cold against my sweaty hands. Chris and Kenton joined me a half second later.
I couldn’t wait any longer. “Sorry guys. I have to pee.” I shuffled over as far as I could towards the end of the trailer, pulled my costume pants, my sweats, and my boxers down below my equipment, and let fly into the long grass against the fence. Feeling much better, I moved back past the other two and took position nearest the alley.
We moved another house down, then another and another.
There was one house between us and the brightly lit street. We had to cross the street, get into the alley on the other side, and find another dark spot, all without being seen.
I was still scared, maybe more than before, but it was beginning to dawn on me that I was feeling something completely different now. Adrenaline fueled excitement. My hands were steady, my heart hammering fast, but strong and even. My body felt strong, alive, my eyes keen.
We moved out into the alley, trying to tread quietly enough that the gravel didn’t crunch under our feet. Trying to keep to the shadows, but needing to get far enough past the fence of the last house to see into the street, to look up and down and make sure nobody was there.
I didn’t see anything. So I looked again, then again. I looked back at Kenton and Chris, their own eyes searching back and forth. They nodded at me.
I held up three fingers, then two, then one, then a closed fist.
And we sprinted.
Into the street we ran, the sudden glare of the street light above momentarily blinding me. We looked around frantically, peering into the shadows as we ran. We ran straight ahead as fast as we could, no need to try to dodge or weave, we just wanted to get to the safety of the alley and of the shadows beyond.
We ran into the next alley and all the way past the next house. That alley was paved, our sneakered footfalls made soft slaps against it as we ran. We had to run all the way past the first house before we could find a hiding place since it was surrounded completely by a high wooden fence, there was nowhere to hide. The second house was fenced too but had a driveway where two pickup trucks were parked. We ran between them, crouched and tried to catch our breath.
My lungs felt like they were burning, I couldn’t get air. I felt sweat drip into my eyes making me blink until I wiped it away. I was trying to breathe quietly and trying to catch my breath at the same time, holding my mouth and throat as widely open as possible to accomplish this.
We waited a full minute before moving out again.
We were only a block from my place when we messed up. Maybe it had been too easy. Maybe we were getting a bit careless, a bit too loud, not looking around carefully enough, but we messed up.
We had moved out from an unkempt and messy back yard, one of those yards where people leave junk lying around and the grass uncut for who knows how long. We crept into the alley, moving alongside the fence of the next yard and were halfway between it and the next obvious hiding spot when I saw him.
Actually, I didn’t see him right away, I saw the ember of his cigarette first as he took a drag. He was sitting down on the pavement, leaning back against a fence, one of those black and beige clad gunmen, seemingly resting, his knees on his elbows, his gun propped against his right leg, smoking a cigarette.
And he was looking right at us.
I froze. Inside, I was panicking. Several impulses warred with each other. I wanted to run. I wanted to play dead. I wanted to try and convince him we were nice kids and he should just let us be. I wanted to hurt him. All of these happened at once, all at the same time. I heard Kenton beside me make a kind of groaning squeak noise. Chris was just quietly repeating, “Fuck, fuck, fuck....”
The gunman continued to look directly at the three of us, standing frozen against the wooden fence. I pushed back against it. I felt a wooden sliver from one of the boards behind me impale itself into my elbow as I slid it across the board. The fence boards creaked and groaned as we all tried to push our way further away from the gunman, wishing we could magically go through the fence and to the safety of the other side.
The gunman dropped his smoke beside his left boot, reached for his gun, and placed his hand on the ground for leverage to stand up. His eyes never left us.
We turned and ran.
It was a good thing he was sitting down on the ground. That gave us a second or two head start.
We ran as fast as we could back and right, into the messy yard. I looked around wildly, trying to find some kind of cover, some place to hide, all the while knowing it was hopeless.
Kenton, Chris, and myself were spaced out in the yard. Kenton had scrambled to the left corner of the house. Chris was also on the left, against the rotted fence, and trying to use the small tree there for some kind of protection that it was much too small to offer. I had turned right from the alley into the yard and had kept going to my right and along the back fence. So I was standing near the corner of the side fence and back fence, near a pile of junk including used lumber, decorative patio bricks, and an old wheelbarrow.
Because of our respective positions when the gunman arrived he saw Kenton first, then his eyes moved to his left and he saw Chris. I was almost directly to his right from where he was standing, a bit more in the shadows, so he didn’t seem to see me right away as he raised his rifle and carefully took aim at Kenton.
I froze up again, once more fear taking over my whole existence.
You know how in movies, like the Matrix or a bunch of others, when it gets to those action scenes, they make everything happen real slow, like in slow motion?
I always thought that was just for effect. For drama. Or maybe to help the audience see everything that was going on.
It turns out that’s not it at all. That’s what actually happens in real life in those situations. It’s not a metaphor. It happens. Everything seemed to slow down by about ten times.
I watched for what seemed long minutes as the gunman, expressionless, raised his rifle. His thumb clicked off the safety as he placed the rifle up and against his shoulder. Still frozen, my eyes were locked on him, as he began to peer down the sight. His finger moved from the guard onto the trigger, and began to tense, to squeeze.
Somehow I unfroze. I didn’t have a choice. It was either that or watch the best friend I ever had die right in front of me.
I picked up one of those red, wavy decorative bricks that were piled at my feet. They were fairly heavy, maybe five or six pounds each. My hands were slick with sweat, but the rough concrete against my fingers helped my grip. I barely felt the weight as I reached back and hurled the brick in an adrenaline induced fury as hard as I could towards the gunman, releasing it and feeling the concrete scrape against my fingertips as it rushed away from me, just as his finger commenced squeezing.
Chris wasn’t standing around taking notes either. He had pulled one of the half rotten, loose boards right off the fence and was sprinting in the direction of the gunman. I could tell the gunman was well aware of exactly where Chris was and intended to quickly deal with him next.
My thrown brick glanced off the gunman’s right ear with a clunking sound, like it hit something hollow. It hit hard, hard enough that his ear immediately starting seeping blood and his head rocked forward.
How he managed not to finish firing the gun I don’t know, but I was glad of it. I knew the noise would no doubt bring more of these madmen. Instead, the first glimmer of an expression appeared on his face, an angry grimace, and he turned his rifle towards me.
Maybe he thought Chris was farther away than he was, or maybe the pain of his ear distracted him. Or maybe he was just inexperienced at this kind of thing. He seemed to be making dumb mistakes, forgetting to search out where I was when he came into the yard. I don’t know, but just as he seemed to remember that Chris existed and begin to turn back towards him, Chris was already swinging the fence board at his head, making a thrumming swoosh noise as it cut through the air.
It hit with a loud whack. The three large nails still sticking out of the board impacting the man’s face, one of them in an eye.
The noise the man made was sickening. Not even a scream, something between a gurgle and a moan. His hands clawed at his face as he fell to the ground. Chris’ second swing with the board and my second throw with the brick, this time both at very close range, hit the gunman almost at the same time. First the brick, hard against his skull, making a horrid crunching noise when a corner of the brick sunk far deeper into the man’s head than seemed possible. I had thrown it straight down with both hands with all my might. Then, a tenth of a second later, the nails in the fence board sunk deep into the same area of the man’s head with a squishy thunk. The board stayed lodged in the man’s head when Chris let go of his end of it.
We stood there, staring at each other.
It wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real.
The man was obviously and emphatically dead.
It can’t be real.
Kenton ran up to us, not bothering to try and remain quiet. Now all three of us stood there, in a triangle around the dead gunman, alternately staring at him and at each other. None of us said a word.
I didn’t think we could.
Minutes seemed to go by. Then time resumed its normal pace once again, and I heard all three of us breathing hard, gasping pants all around.
I kept reflexively squeezing my sweat soaked hands into fists and releasing them, somehow still feeling the rough concrete sliding out and away from my fingertips.
Kenton spoke first. “You guys saved my life. I know it. I know it.”
Chris and I looked at him, then at each other. There didn’t seem to be any reasonable response to this.
Maybe. But a guy was lying there dead. Because of Chris. Because of me.
I knew myself pretty well after the last few years of dealing with all the crap I’d been through. I knew the adrenaline, the shock, all of what was going on was letting me hide from the inevitable fallout of this. But I knew, beyond any doubt whatsoever, that if I made it through the day I’d be very dearly paying for this evening over the next long while.
Chris’ eyes reflected my own thoughts. They looked bewildered. Haunted. We looked at each other, sharing something, but not understanding it. Not able to process it.
But, we couldn’t spend any time on it. Not now. Maybe never.
We had to keep moving.
I made my way towards the alley once again.
Kenton, in a strained whisper, stopped me. “Josh! The gun!”
I looked back and stared at it, the dark metal evilly reflecting the glare from the distant streetlight. Then I looked at Kenton. He knew before I even shook my head and said, “No. I can’t. I won’t.”
Right after Mom kicked Dad out, I mean right after, literally the next day, she signed herself and me up for shooting lessons.
“For protection, Josh,” she said, again and again, to my head shakes and fear. “You know that man. I know that man. I know what he’s capable of. By the time the police could arrive, it would be far too late. We can’t afford to move. I need this. You need this. We are going to do it.”
I whined. I complained. I insisted I was never going to touch a gun. I moaned and argued and crossed my arms stubbornly.
You see, my dad had taught me all about violence. About rage. About danger. I made a promise to myself when I was eight years old, a promise I intended to keep. I promised myself I would never, ever, ever become like my Dad. And part of that, I reasoned, was never touching a gun of any kind, since Dad was both a hunter and an armed security guard.
But, Mom won. She didn’t give me a choice. So I learned to shoot. I did the minimal possible, but I had to be there, so I was. After a few weeks, Mom relented and allowed me to stop. She, however, continued to go every week. I heard she was getting awfully good.
I already knew, after looking at the gunman lying on the ground, that it was too late. I was my dad. Violent. Uncaring. Out of control. I wasn’t feeling it now, but I knew I would have to deal with those emotions later. With whatever vestige of self-respect I had left, I didn’t want to go any further, I was not going to pick up that rifle.
And Kenton knew it when he looked into my eyes.
He sighed. “You’re not your dad, Josh. Not even close.”
I stood there and looked at him, keeping my face impassive.
“You’re nothing like him.”
I nodded towards the dead gunman and looked back at Kenton.
“So? You saved my life. You’re nothing like your dad.”
I just turned and started walking again, ignoring him.
Behind me, Kenton swore and picked up the gun. He had had exactly three lessons, back when I convinced my mom and his mom to let him come along, or else I was simply not going to go. Far fewer than me, but at least he knew one end from the other.
Ten minutes later we were in my back yard.
The lights were out, the house seemed quiet and empty. I knew my brother though, I was sure he was behind the old couch downstairs. He used to hide under it, but now he was too big, so he’d be behind it.
I was almost at my goal. I crept slowly to the back door, and the cool metal of the doorknob was in my palm. I twisted, but the knob didn’t. The back door was locked. Of course it was. I didn’t have my key. I’d left it at home, not wanting to deal with too much crap under my costume. I knew Bradley would let me in when I finished trick-or-treating.
But that was before all this madness. He was probably hiding, I was thinking, and would never answer a knock or the doorbell.
I’d have to break in.
I looked around. “Kenton, help me here.” I walked to one end of the picnic table in the middle of our yard, and he walked to the other. We lifted it and placed it underneath the kitchen window.
I climbed up on top and pulled the screen out of its slot and handed it to Chris, and he set it down against the house.
I put both my palms flat against the glass and moved them to my right, hoping the wonky latch inside wasn’t holding properly again. At first the window didn’t move. Chris jumped up on the table beside me, and with four spread palms against the window, pushing to the right, I heard a click, and the latch gave and the window slid open easily. The inner window didn’t have a lock and it too slid open. Chris got down on his hands and knees, I stood on his back, boosted myself up, wiggled and pulled, and was on my kitchen floor.
I got up and looked back out into the yard. “I’ll let you in the back door,” I whispered, then closed and this time securely locked the window, not that it would stop these guys, whoever they were. But it made me feel a bit better. I ran to the door a few feet away, unlocked it, and let Kenton and Chris into the house.
I closed the door and locked it, and realized the noise I was hearing wasn’t coming from me, Kenton, or Chris.
I was eight years old again, hiding with five year old Bradley downstairs behind the old couch. Dad was rampaging, looking for something, anything, to take out his anger. We both could hear his snarls, complaining about everything and anything, then a louder crash.
“What the FUCK?!” we heard Dad yell. Then, “Bradley! Where the FUCK are you? You get your fucking ass up here RIGHT NOW. I’ve told you a thousand times to put your FUCKING shit away when you’re done with it. If you can’t put this goddamn hockey stick where it belongs, then since it’s so FUCKING handy, I’m going to use it to beat your fucking ass.”
That’s the first time I heard that noise. That wailing, keening, moaning sound emanating from Bradley behind me. It haunted my very soul. I remember running out from the hiding spot before Dad got too close. Before Bradley could do anything. “No, Dad! It wasn’t Bradley! It was me. It was me. I left it there,” I remember telling him, desperately trying to get the noise to stop. At any cost.
And the cost was heavy.
Now, the same noise. Slightly different tone from his eleven year old vocal chords, but it was the same noise.
I didn’t dare shout out to let him know it was me, so I ran through the dark house as fast as I could, mostly by memory. On the way to the basement stairs my hip bumped the little table in the hallway where we keep the phone. I felt it tip, but was already past it and my backwards grasping hand failed to find a corner of it. It fell over with a loud crash, the phone skittering and rolling across the floor before becoming quiet once again.
The wailing, moaning sound doubled in volume. So I doubled my speed.
I ran downstairs, towards the couch where I knew my brother was hiding. As loud as I dared, I said, “Bradley, it’s me. It’s Josh. I’m here. You’re safe, I’m here, I’m home.”
“Yeah. I’m right here. I’m always right here when you need me.”
Like a shot I had an armful of little brother, hard enough that we both fell over, the carpet of our downstairs family room cushioning me where my butt and elbows impacted it. “Oh, Joshy! I’m so scared. Who are they? What do they want? Why are they doing that? What I saw out the window when it started.....” He was crying now, sobbing almost hysterically, loud wet inward gasps in between sobs. Fat tears rolled down his red cheeks.
“Shhh, it’s okay, Buddy, but we gotta be quiet, remember? I don’t know who they are. But we gotta be quiet until the police and the army get here, and until Mom gets home. Shhh.”
Bradley did quiet down. We sat up, Bradley still holding onto me tightly. He seemed to relax a little bit and then I felt him tense up again, looking over and behind me. “Who’s that?”
“That’s Chris. He’s cool. He helped me get home.”
Kenton said, “Chris saved my life, along with your brother, on the way over here. Chris is way beyond cool. And your brother is the most courageous and best friend anyone could ever have.”
I just shook my head as my brother moved slightly away from me and stared into my face. I wasn’t brave. I was scared to death. I almost didn’t leave the old lady’s place. I almost froze up completely every time I needed to do something. I almost got us killed. Then, well, then I took a giant step towards becoming my father, something I vowed I’d never, ever do.
Despite that, my brother just hugged me again and said, “I know.”
My brother was hot and sweaty, his tears and snot were soaked into my shirt. He was vibrating. Or maybe, I realized, maybe it was me that was vibrating. I was trembling again. I extricated myself from my brother and turned around on my butt and reached over to the stereo and turned on the radio, real quiet.
We sat there, downstairs well away from the windows with the lights out, a barely audible radio telling us that the fight was still raging outside. Reinforcements for the unknown attackers were arriving from unknown sources via various modes of transportation. Reinforcements were also arriving for the police and military, with more on the way.
We could hear the shots again outside, the fight getting closer.
Bradley sat on my right, huddled next to me, his arms wrapped around my right arm and gripping tight. Chris sat on my left, his body touching mine from shoulder to knee. Kenton sat across from me, his legs touching mine. Somewhere in the last few minutes I realized Chris had put his right hand in my left, and we were squeezing them together tightly.
The fighting outside was getting louder. And it was fighting, not just one side shooting at unarmed people. I heard rifles, but I heard automatic weapons too, and something else, something that made loud, bright explosions. I could see the glare from the window in the other room.
Then it became quieter again. Not quiet. But more distant, like the main fighting had moved a block or two away. I stood up.
Chris squeezed my hand tighter, not letting go. “Where are you going?” he asked.
I looked down at him and at Kenton. “To peek out the window,” I said.
“Do you think that’s a good idea?” asked Kenton.
Even in the house, down here, with the windows all closed, the smell of smoke, gunpowder, other things that I couldn’t identify wafted through the air. The smell of the battle outside. It combined with that of nervous, scared, and sweaty teenagers, and one preteen. I felt my heart rate, slowed only slightly in the last fifteen minutes, begin to speed up again as I contemplated looking outside. My sticky, sweaty hand slipped out of Chris’. “No, not really. But I need to know.”
I walked through the doorway into the downstairs spare bedroom. It had a window out onto the front lawn. Ground level outside, above eye level down here. I moved up to it cautiously, closer to the window, and looked outside.
At first, I saw no movement. Then, vehicles on the street. Armored vehicles. Military. Our military. Heading towards the fighting noises.
I breathed a sigh of relief and turned back towards the others. “I think that’s the good guys. I think we’re okay now.”
Moments later, a loud amplified voice came from one of the vehicles. “Please continue to stay indoors and away from windows and doors. It is not safe to come out. I repeat, please continue to stay indoors. Leave your lights off. Further instructions will be forthcoming.” The voice repeated the message as the vehicle drove down the street.
I discovered I was hungry. “Maybe we can sneak upstairs, leave the lights off, and grab something from the fridge. I’m starved,” I said.
Bradley ran back behind the couch and out again, carrying a half full pillowcase. “I’ve got Halloween candy. I’ll share.”
Ten minutes and about three thousand calories each later, another vehicle drove down the street with another loudspeaker. “You may turn on your lights. We strongly recommend you continue to stay indoors and listen to the television or radio for further instructions unless there is an emergency. Cell phone service and landline telephone service remain down, as is internet. If there is an emergency, contact one of the members of the police or armed services stationed at each intersection. Electricity and water are functioning normally. Family members are now being allowed back into the area to return to their homes.”
We let out a small cheer and went upstairs, turning on every single light in the entire house all along the way.
We all ended up in the kitchen. I wanted to find something a bit more substantial than Halloween candy to eat. I opened the fridge and began handing out the makings for sandwiches. Kenton and Chris helping me shuttle it to the table and counter. As I handed Chris a jar of mayonnaise and a head of lettuce, he caught my eye and smiled. I couldn’t help it. I smiled back. He had a great smile. I saw something in his expression, some kind of decision made, and just as I was wondering what it was and before I had a chance to move, he leaned forward, over the fridge door, and kissed me.
I was so surprised I didn’t move. Almost that frozen in fear thing again. Only different.
“What did you do that for?” I managed to ask. The jar of mayonnaise and the lettuce cold in my hands. He was still leaning over the fridge door. His face only inches from mine.
“Because I wanted to,” he answered. “Because if it all went wrong, well, we just met, how bad could it be? Because if I didn’t, I would’ve wished I did for the next ten years I think.”
“Oh.” I answered, still staring at him over the fridge door. Still holding condiments and veggies. I didn’t add anything else and didn’t move.
“Well?” he asked.
“Well what?” I said.
“Did I make it all go wrong?”
I thought. I looked over at Kenton. At Bradley, watching the two of us, trying to hide smiles, I think.
I decided it was time. So I answered him. By leaning that last few inches, and kissing him back.
Bradley giggled and Kenton made a wolf whistle. I stopped kissing and grinned at them. “Well, now you know. Not exactly how I wanted to tell either of you.”
Kenton rolled his eyes, “Oh come on, Josh. I’ve known you for four years. I already knew.”
I goggled at him, then turned to Bradley and raised my eyebrows in question.
“Well, duh, yeah,” he said.
So, I shrugged and leaned in for another kiss. Did you know you can taste what kind of Halloween candy someone recently ate when you kiss them? Well, you can.
The front door made that clicking rasping sound it always made as it opened. Mom was home, they must have let her through. I figured what the hell, so I leaned in for one more kiss just as the footsteps came into the kitchen.
“What the FUCK?!?” came the loud deep-voiced yell.
Oh shit. Oh fuck, no.
I sprang backwards and smashed my tailbone into the sharp edge of the countertop behind me.
My dad was standing there, looking, well, looking like he looks when he’s about to hurt someone.
I was frozen again. More frozen than when at the old lady’s house. More frozen than when I saw the gunman with the cigarette in the alley. Petrified. I heard ringing in my ears.
“I come here to find out if my own FUCKING FAMILY is even alive after all this, after nobody even had enough respect to bother to contact me! Hasn’t even TALKED to me for months, and I see THIS?!”
Dad kicked a kitchen chair, sending it banging into the kitchen table, causing two plates that Kenton had set there to crash to the floor and break.
“You’re a FUCKING FAGGOT?! That’s just not going to FUCKING happen! No fucking son of mine is going to be a goddamn fairy!”
The Matrix time-slowing-down thing started happening again. Dad started striding towards me, his intentions oh so clear on his face and in his body language. I still couldn’t move. Not even a little bit. Like when I was six years old. I just stood there. Useless. Helpless. Scared.
Then something happened that had never, ever, happened before.
Bradley, instead of running behind me, like he always has done, ran in front of Dad, His hands, his arms, less than half the size of Dad’s, reached out and into his chest. They pushed him backwards as hard as a small eleven year old can push, and yelled, “You leave my brother alone you bastard!”
Dad didn’t move an inch of course. He just turned his rage onto a different target.
Behind Dad, past the kitchen doorway and front entrance, through the open front door into the yard, two military guys and a cop were running towards us. The military guys were holding some kind of automatic weapons, pointed up. The cop had his hand on his gun, but it was holstered. They must have been attracted by the noise. They could see exactly what was happening, but they were too far away to do anything at all. They couldn’t shoot. Chris, Bradley, and I were all directly behind Dad from their point of view. I knew they couldn’t take the chance. I hoped they’d get here in time.
Dad was beside the stove. Hanging from a hook above the stove was our cast iron frying pan. It was big, solid, and heavy. Very heavy. Dad ripped it from the hook, the metal hook ripping out from the wall and flying across the kitchen to the other wall before bouncing off and landing on the countertop. He raised the heavy frying pan above his head, and, staring right at Bradley, began swinging it towards Bradley’s skull.
I knew what would happen. I’d seen Dad like this. I saw the angle of the frying pan as his arm reached the end of his backswing. I knew what he could do when he was like this. With the weight of that frying pan, with the force he was swinging, with the angle of the edge of it, my little brother was about to get his skull completely caved in. It would kill him. I just knew it would.
I heard myself screaming, “NOOO!!!” I reached behind me and my fingers found the cold, hard, smooth metal of the rifle Kenton had set there when he began helping with the sandwich fixings, the one he took from the dead gunman.
I swung it up and around. The hated lessons came back to me. I adjusted my stance, brought it up and into position, flicked off the safety, found my target, held my breath, and squeezed the trigger.
Thunder filled the kitchen. Far louder than I was used to without the hearing protection we wore at the range. My ears were ringing.
I couldn’t possibly miss at this range, I fired right at the centre of mass. Right in his chest. His expression changed to confusion, and he had time to grab the wound on his chest before he fell to the ground. The frying pan dropped, hitting a glancing blow on the side of Bradley’s head on the way down, causing a gash which immediately began dripping blood on the white linoleum of our kitchen floor.
Underneath Dad, a large pool of blood was growing. He wasn’t moving. At all. His eyes were wide open.
My heart thudded in my chest, in my ears. The rifle was sickeningly hot in my hands. I dropped it to the floor, my ears still ringing.
Time came back to normal. I screamed and dropped to my knees.
Chris and Kenton ran to me, on either side, and held me up. I would’ve fallen completely otherwise. The two military guys and the cop arrived in the kitchen. One of the military guys checked Dad for a pulse, another reached down to my dropped rifle and engaged the safety, touching only that with a thumbnail. “Good shot, kid,” he said, very seriously. “You did what you had to.”
The cop pointed to his chest, at the camera attached there. “Got it all right here. The whole thing.” Then he got on his radio, calling for someone or other.
Bradley was with me now, too. Kneeling. He looked so, so serious. I almost couldn’t look back, but I had to. “You did it again,” he said. His voice seemed slower, huskier than usual.
“Did what again?” I somehow croaked out. I felt like I was about to faint.
“Saved me. You always did. You always do.” He was crying silent tears. Blood dripped down from the gash on the side of his head, but he ignored it. “You are the bravest person I know.”
I shook my head. “I’m not brave. I’ve never been brave. I’m a coward. I’m scared all the time. All the time.”
Kenton, still holding my right arm beside me, shook it a bit. “For fuck’s sake, Josh. Of course you were scared. That’s the point you idiot. That’s what always made you different from him.” He pointed at the body on the floor. “He was never brave. ’Cause he was never really scared and went and did the right thing anyway. He was a coward who used violence to try and pretend he was in control. You never did that. You never could. You can’t be brave if you’re not scared.”
My world tilted.
I turned to my left. Chris was still holding my left arm. I looked at him. He just looked at me with the weirdest, warm, adoring look in his eyes.
“My hero,” is all he said. Then he leaned forward and kissed me.
It would be hard. I knew that. But maybe it was all going to be okay after all.
I know, I know. You’ve heard it before. But read this. It’s important. Even though I and others have said it before. It’s still important.
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