The light turned green, but Patrick didn't move. The discharge of a gun in Sterling was rare enough to have him narrow his attention to the voice on the dispatch radio, waiting for an explanation.
At the high school...Sterling High...
The dispatcher's voice was getting faster, more intense. Patrick wheeled the car in a U-turn and started toward the school with his lights flashing. Other voices began to transmit in static bursts: officers stating their positions in town; the on-duty supervisor trying to coordinate manpower and calling for mutual aid from Hanover and Lebanon. Their voices knotted and tangled, blocking one another so that everything and nothing was being said at once.
Signal 1000, the dispatcher said. Signal 1000.
In Patrick's entire career as a detective, he'd only heard that call twice. Once was in Maine, when a deadbeat dad had taken an officer hostage. Once was in Sterling, during a potential bank robbery that turned out to be a false alarm. Signal 1000 meant that everyone, immediately, was to get off the radio and leave it free for dispatch. It meant that what they were dealing with was not routine police business.
It meant life or death.
Chaos was a constellation of students, running out of the school and trampling the injured. A boy holding a handmade sign in an upstairs window that read HELP US. Two girls hugging each other and sobbing. Chaos was blood melting pink on the snow; it was the drip of parents that turned into a stream and then a raging river, screaming out the names of their missing children. Chaos was a TV camera in your face, not enough ambulances, not enough officers, and no plan for how to react when the world as you knew it went to pieces.
Patrick pulled halfway onto the sidewalk and grabbed his bulletproof vest from the back of the car. Already, adrenaline pulsed through him, making the edges of his vision swim and his senses more acute. He found Chief O'Rourke standing with a megaphone in the middle of the melee. "We don't know what we're dealing with yet," the chief said. "SOU's on its way."
Patrick didn't give a damn about the Special Operations Unit. By the time the SWAT team got here, a hundred more shots might be fired; a kid might be killed. He drew his gun. "I'm going in."
"The hell you are. That's not protocol."
"There is no fucking protocol for this," Patrick snapped. "You can fire me later."
As he raced up the steps to the school, he was vaguely aware of two other patrol officers bucking the chief's commands and joining him in the fray. Patrick directed them each down a different hallway, and then he himself pushed through the double doors, past students who were shoving each other in an effort to get outside. Fire alarms blared so loudly that Patrick had to strain to hear the gunshots. He grabbed the coat of a boy streaking past him. "Who is it?" he yelled. "Who's shooting?"
The kid shook his head, speechless, and wrenched away. Patrick watched him run crazily down the hallway, open the door, burst into a rectangle of sunlight.
Students funneled around him, as if he were a stone in a river. Smoke billowed and burned his eyes. Patrick heard another staccato of gunshots, and had to restrain himself from running toward them blindly. "How many of them?" he cried as a girl ran by.
"I...I don't know..."
The boy beside her turned around and looked at Patrick, torn between offering knowledge and getting the hell out of there. "It's a kid...he's shooting everyone..."
That was enough. Patrick pushed against the tide, a salmon swimming upstream. Homework papers were scattered on the floor; shell casings rolled beneath the heels of his shoes. Ceiling tiles had been shot off, and a fine gray dust coated the broken bodies that lay twisted on the floor. Patrick ignored all of this, going against most of his training -- running past doors that might hide a perp, disregarding rooms that should have been searched -- instead driving forward with his weapon drawn and his heart beating through every inch of his skin. Later, he would remember other sights that he didn't have time to register right away: the heating duct covers that had been pried loose so that students could hide in the crawl space; the shoes left behind by kids who literally ran out of them; the eerie prescience of crime-scene outlines on the floor outside the biology classrooms, where students had been tracing their own bodies on butcher paper for an assignment.
Copyright © Jodi Picoult, 2007. Reproduced with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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