He ran through hallways that seemed to circle in on each other. "Where?" he would bite out every time he passed a fleeing student -- his only tool of navigation. He'd see sprays of blood, and students crumpled on the ground, and he did not let himself look twice. He pounded up the main stairwell, and just as he reached the top, a door cracked open. Patrick whirled, pointing his gun, as a young female teacher fell to her knees with her hands raised. Behind the white oval of her face were twelve others, featureless and frightened. Patrick could smell urine.
He lowered his gun and beckoned her toward the staircase. "Go," he commanded, but he did not stay long enough to see if they did.
Turning a corner, Patrick slipped on blood and heard another gunshot, this one loud enough to ring his ears. He swept into the open double doors of the gymnasium and scanned the handful of sprawled bodies, the basketball cart overturned and the globes resting against the far wall -- but no shooter. He knew, from the overtime detail he'd taken on Friday nights to monitor high school ball games, that he'd reached the far end of Sterling High. Which meant that the shooter was either hiding somewhere here or had doubled back past him when Patrick hadn't noticed...and could even now have cornered him in this gym.
Patrick spun around to the entrance again to see if that was the case, and then heard another shot. He ran to a door that led out from the gym, one he hadn't noticed in his first quick visual sweep of the area. It was a locker room, tiled white on the walls and the floor. He glanced down, saw the fanned spray of blood at his feet, and edged his gun around the corner wall.
Two bodies lay unmoving at one end of the locker room. At the other, closer to Patrick, a slight boy crouched beside a bank of lockers. He wore wire-rimmed glasses, crooked on his thin face. He was shivering hard.
"Are you okay?" Patrick whispered. He did not want to speak out loud and give away his position to the shooter.
The boy only blinked at him.
"Where is he?" Patrick mouthed.
The boy pulled a pistol from beneath his thigh and held it up to his own head.
A new rush of heat surged through Patrick. "Don't fucking move," he shouted, drawing a bead on the boy. "Drop the gun or I will shoot you." Sweat broke out down his back and on his forehead, and he could feel his cupped hands shifting on the butt of the gun as he aimed, determined to lace the kid with bullets if he had to.
Patrick let his forefinger brush gently against the trigger just as the boy opened his fingers wide as a starfish. The pistol fell to the floor, skittering across the tile.
Immediately, he pounced. One of the other officers -- whom Patrick hadn't even noticed following him -- retrieved the boy's weapon. Patrick dropped the kid onto his stomach and cuffed him, pressing his knee hard into the boy's spine. "Are you alone? Who's with you?"
"Just me," the boy ground out.
Patrick's head was spinning and his pulse was a military tattoo, but he could vaguely hear the other officer calling this information in over the radio: "Sterling, we have one in custody; we don't have knowledge of anyone else."
Just as seamlessly as it had started, it was over -- at least as much as something like this could be considered over. Patrick didn't know if there were booby traps or bombs in the school; he didn't know how many casualties there were; he didn't know how many wounded Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and Alice Peck Day Hospital could take; he didn't know how to go about processing a crime scene this massive. The target had been taken out, but at what irreplaceable cost? Patrick's entire body began to shake, knowing that for so many students and parents and citizens today, he had once again been too late.
Copyright © Jodi Picoult, 2007. Reproduced with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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