I've talked before about how some stories/books start with a question. What if this happened or what if that happened? Well right before I got pregnant with my daughter I had this what if that wouldn't leave me alone. It was a what if a school shooting wasn't what it seemed on the surface? What if armed gunmen took over a school and something no one could possibly see coming happened? I know that's vague but bear with me. I wrote 30,000 words of this book and stalled. I do hope to get it off the ground one day once I figure out definitively where it wants to go but for fun, I thought I'd post the first chapter. Please remember this is totally unedited (except for spelling). This is a first draft.
Armed gunmen. They were words you heard on television--on CNN or in one of the many police drama shows that inundated prime time programming. They were words you read in the newspapers after the fact. Armed gunmen. They were abstract beings, characters in movies and books. Flat, one-dimensional. Faceless. They almost didn't matter because you knew that at the end of the show or the end of the story they would be dead. It wouldn't matter who they had been or why they had become "armed gunmen" because they'd be gone.
The good guys would prevail.
Maybe one or two unfortunate souls would have been killed by the armed gunmen but they too would remain faceless because violence that necessitated armed gunmen never happened in your city. It never happened in your world or your reality and it certainly never happened to your children.
"Doc? You there?" Russo Barbieri's voice came from far away, as if he were speaking to Steven Young through a tin can with a string attached to it instead of the telephone on Steven's desk.
"Jesus, Mary, Mother of God," Barbieri said. The fear in the man’s voice disconcerted Steven even more. "Doc? Doc? Are you there? Did you hear me?"
Steven cleared his throat and gave a husky, "Yeah, I'm here."
He looked around his office which was on the fourth floor of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Sunlight streamed through the windows. The air in the room seemed to vibrate, pulsating like a mirage in desert heat.
Was this his office?
Barbieri's voice was taut and high-pitched. "Did you hear me? Paul and Dane are still in the school. They’re still IN THERE." He said the words "in there" in a tone that implied a secret code. As if "in there" should mean something special to Steven. Barbieri said "in there" like he was talking about a gas chamber at Auschwitz.
"They didn't make it out. They're still in there, man."
Steven's cell phone beeped, indicating an incoming text message. A moment later it vibrated briefly, dancing a little jig on the surface of his mahogany desk.
"How many gunmen?" Steven asked because he didn't know what else to ask. Because there was really only one question worth asking and there was a fifty-fifty chance he wouldn't want to hear the answer.
Barbieri balked. "What?"
"How many gunmen?" Steven repeated more slowly, surprised at how calm and detached he sounded. The other man's breathing was heavy, loud in Steven's ear. "Uh, I don't know. I counted three on the news. I got one of my boys trying to find out more. It won't be easy though. Place is crawling with cops."
On a normal day, Steven would have responded with a biting, "Oh, what? No police officers on your payroll?" But on a normal day Barbieri would never call Dr. Steven Young. Because Steven had made it abundantly clear years earlier that even though their sons were close friends--an arrangement which had never pleased Steven--a mafia don had no business being social with HUP’s Chief of Neurosurgery. They were not friends. They were never to speak unless absolutely necessary. They would not even exchange pleasantries over each other's sons. They would never eat together, never have a couple of beers together or even acknowledge each other in a public place.
Barbieri, like any self-respecting mob boss, would never tolerate that kind of overt disrespect or condescension from anyone, no matter how accomplished or prominent but he owed Steven Young.
"How many hostages?" Steven asked.
Barbieri exhaled in a loud huff. Steven pictured the large man wiping his brow with a hanky. "What? I don't know. Who cares? Our fucking kids are in there. As far as I'm concerned there are only two hostages--Paul and Dane."
"Yeah, you would think of it that way," Steven said disdainfully.
"Hey--fuck you, doc. I don't got time for this. You don't like me. I don't like you. But we got kids being held hostage right now by armed gunmen and that's a real fuckin' problem."
Steven's cell phone vibrated again briefly, reminding him he had an unread text message.
"You're right," Steven conceded. "I'm sorry."
For a long moment there was only the sound of Barbieri's loud breathing and the muffled swipe of a hanky.
A small commotion outside Steven's office door drew his attention. Then the door banged open and Dr. Thatcher Frey filled the doorway. His hands were pressed into either side of the door jamb, supporting the weight of his six foot four frame. He was out of breath and his face was a disturbing shade of gray. Steven had only seen Thatcher's face that color one other time in the near thirty years they had known each other.
"I just heard--saw on the news," Thatcher spluttered. "Is he? Is Dane? Did he get out?"
Steven shook his head which seemed to take all the life out of Thatcher. Steven's friend stumbled to one of the chairs opposite Steven's desk.
"Doc? You there?" Barbieri said.
Steven pulled the receiver away from his ear and stared at it as if it had appeared in his hand that instant. Was Russo Barbieri weeping?
Steven pressed the receiver into his ear and answered, "Yeah. Still here."
"What do we do?" Barbieri asked.
The desperation in Barbieri's voice broke through the cool, clinical barrier that Steven used day after day, year after year in the operating room. The barrier that allowed him to open another human being's skull and cut into his or her brain. It was the same calm that allowed him to look at the worst brain injuries possible and know that he could fix them. It was a protective bubble that had seen him through many professional and personal crises, including the death of his wife four years earlier.
Russo Barbieri had managed to puncture it with three small words. Fear rattled Steven's voice. "I don't know," he said.
There was no mistaking Barbieri's sob this time and suddenly Steven had a flash of Paul play fighting with his father in the driveway of the Barbieri home. It was one of the few times Steven had forced himself to go there and be cordial to the man.
Dane and Paul had planned a camping trip last summer. The boys had planned to leave from Paul's house, taking the SUV Russo and his wife had bought Paul for his sixteenth birthday. Steven had driven Dane there and as the four men stood around saying their goodbyes with Russo and Steven handing out non-sequiter bits of advice and cautions, Paul had started joking with his father.
"Okay Pop. If I see a bear I'll just pop him in the mouth. I'll be like this and then I'll throw a hook to the body like this . . . " Laughing, Paul had thrown light punches at Russo's middle until Russo pulled him into a bear hug which ended in a noogie.
Steven had looked at Russo's face and been shocked to see the look of unguarded fear, bordering on panic. It shocked Steven because it was a look that mirrored feelings he had long ago learned to conceal with respect to his own son. Steven was chagrined at the time to find he had something genuine in common with Russo. In Steven's mind a man responsible for the kind of crimes Russo oversaw on a daily basis could not possibly be capable of feelings as pure as the love of one's child.
Steven had felt the same fear he had seen on Barbieri's face many times during the course of his own life. Dane's first day of kindergarten, middle and then high school. The first time Dane had slept over a friend's house. Watching from the stands at Dane's first soccer match. The first time Dane had driven off in Steven's car alone after getting his driver's license and every trip he'd ever taken with friends.
Steven, unable to bear the sound of Russo's weeping, said, "I'll meet you there in twenty minutes."
He hung up the phone and looked at Thatcher Frey. He tried to put the barrier back in place, his mind moving through a slow play of flashcards, each one depicting a different but complicated brain malady. He remembered his last surgery which had lasted fourteen hours, each hour like each cut, infusing him with the kind of adrenaline that made everything around him seem sharper and more immediate.
Thatcher watched and waited. The cell phone buzzed again and Steven put his hand over it.
"You going down there?" Thatcher asked.
"Yeah," Steven said.
Thatcher's head hung. "Who takes a bunch of school kids hostage?"
Steven sighed. "When we were interns there were bank robberies, plane hijackings, the occasional bomb. Now we have school shootings."
"It makes no sense."
Thatcher paused. He gripped the armrests of the chair as if to get up, sensing it was time to give his friend a few minutes alone. "Steve, I'm sorry. If there's anything . . . " he didn't finish. Steven nodded and watched in silence as Thatcher closed the door behind him.
Steven had saved thousands of lives during his career as a neurosurgeon. He'd drilled through and cut open thousands of skulls, each one distinctly different from the one before and the one that followed. He'd performed surgeries that had changed the face of his field and advanced neuromedicine by leaps and bounds. He'd looked into the wet, tremulous eyes of patients and their family members and told them with a confidence that bordered on arrogance that he would heal the sick. He'd even delivered a few babies during his residency.
But outside the operating room, without his scalpel, with no human brain unmasked before him he was completely powerless and today he felt it more acutely than he ever had in his life. Because none of that could save his son.
The cell phone beneath Steven's hand beeped again, indicating he had received another text message. Slowly he picked it up—as if it might explode in his hand—and flipped it open.
There were two messages, both from Dane. A deep shudder ran the length of Steven's body followed by the unfamiliar sting of tears behind his eyes. He pulled up the first one which read: Dad? U there? He pulled up the second one which read: shooting school did not get out.
Steven's fingers trembled the way they had the day Dane was born—only the second time in his adult life—as he punched in a reply.
I'm here. U ok?
He waited. Only five minutes passed but to Steven it felt like a day. An involuntary cry escaped him when the cell phone beeped again in his hand.
I'm ok. It's bad. Some dead. Some wounded.
Steven was punching in the question are you wounded when the phone beeped again.
Dad. I can stop this.
It took Steven a moment to realize the words had come from his own throat. Thatcher's face appeared through a crack in the door but Steven waved him off, punching the cell phone key furiously.
No. Don't. Please.
This time the reply came more quickly.
U know I can do it. No one else will b hurt. I can end it now.
Steven tried to distract his son. Is Paul with u? Ok?
Yes. Banged up. Ok.
Steven punched in: Son and stopped. There were one million things going through his head. Things he wanted to say to his son before it was too late. Words that echoed conversations the two of them had had over the years about the line between integrity and intercession but there was no time.
It would take hours to type all of Steven's thoughts into the small screen of the cell phone. Neither he nor Dane had hours. They may not even have minutes. There was really only one thing Steven could say to his son in that moment. One thing that might stop Dane from interceding and stopping the shooters but Steven could not do it.
They'll take you away from me.
The phone beeped again before Steven could send any message. Dane wrote: Dad. Very bad here. If I can stop it I have 2.
Steven clutched the phone. He closed his eyes and mentally shored himself up—not in preparation for what Dane was about to do but for what would come after—the end of life as they knew it.
Finally Steven opened his eyes and typed into the cell phone. B careful.
He flipped it closed. He fished inside his scrub jacket pocket for the keys to the locked drawer in his desk. Once he had the drawer open he picked up the files inside in one bundle and dropped them onto the floor. Using his letter opener he popped out the base of the drawer, revealing the false bottom below.
He spread the concealer belt out on his desk. In it he tucked the contents of the secret compartment—two passports bearing his and Dane's photos under the names Kenneth Warren and Logan Smith with matching driver's licenses, Steven's issued from the state of Kentucky and Dane's from the state of Oregon. There was $5,000.00 in cash and a credit card in the name of Steven's alias with a limit of $2,000.00. Finally, two tracphones each with five hundred pre-paid minutes ready to be activated.
Steven lifted his scrub shirt, using his chin against his chest to hold it up while he fitted the concealer belt around his body. He checked himself in his office mirror. Satisfied no one would notice his extra bulk, Steven plucked his cell phone from the desk and left the office. Thatcher still waited outside the door.
"At least let me drive you," the other doctor said. "You'll never get near it this time of day."
Relieved, Steven followed Thatcher Frey down the hall to the elevators without looking back.