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The bell rang as class ended and gunshots echoed in response. Students dropped their books and ran for cover. I dropped my backpack and ran for an open classroom. Room 211, I remember. I dove in through the door and turned to see if the shooters followed me.
They hadn’t, but a girl tried to run across the hall into the room. She was shot two feet from the door. She looked to me and tried to crawl for the door. The shooters must have seen her move because they shot her again. She stopped crawling.
I got off the floor and ran for the wall beside the door. I grabbed a large glass beaker on the way to the wall. I might as well have some sort of weapon.
I noticed my breathing was fast. I had to stay calm. I had to keep thinking. I was 16 years old and I refused to die in the chemistry lab of a high school in Redington, IL.
I hugged the wall and peered through the crack between the door and the wall. I didn’t know where the shooters were, so I had to look for them. I didn’t see them, but I heard the fall of their boot heels. They also jingled as they walked.
One shooter dropped an empty magazine and loaded another. I heard the click of the bolt in the rifle as he (I assumed he) chambered the first round. They kept walking down the hall. I heard them getting closer to the door.
Clack clack. Jingle, jingle. Their guns and chains rattled with each step.
I pressed my back closer to the wall and tried to stay calm as they came closer to the door.
“Let’s check the rooms,” one said. The other agreed and I heard one set of footsteps stop. A door was broken open and I heard gunshots and screaming coming from the room. I heard the second footsteps still moving underneath the gunshots.
I heard the footsteps closer to the door and I heard him breathing outside the door. He raised his rifle and began to step inside. I waited.
I waited until he was halfway in the door, then slammed my body weight into the door and pinned him against the doorjamb. I grabbed his rifle by the muzzle. I bashed my beaker across his hand, slicing it with the glass and making him let go of the rifle.
I had the weapon and turned to face him as he pushed the door aside. He tried to reach for another weapon, but I pulled the trigger and saw the bullets pierce his chest.
My hands were shaking. I was almost hyperventilating. A scream called my focus behind me. I turned and saw a girl, crying behind the teacher’s desk. She looked my age, but I didn’t know her.
She was shaking and looked like she was about to cry. I shushed her, putting my finger to my lips. She hushed herself and moved farther behind the desk.
I searched the shooter’s body for whatever weapons he had. My father was a cop and had been trying to train me to take over the job one day. Thus, I knew how to properly search him, as well as operate the weapons he carried. I found a couple of magazines of rifle ammo and a revolver with spare bullets on him. Then I heard the footsteps down the hall.
I grabbed the ammo and the gun and hurried behind the teacher’s desk. The thing was solid oak, maybe it would provide some cover.
The girl was still there. Still, silently crying.
“We’re going to be ok,” I whispered. I was lying. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I had to help keep her calm. If she was too loud, we’d be found and caught off guard. “Do you believe me?” I said, to drive home the confidence.
“Good.” I put my finger to my lips. “Now, shush.” I peered around the corner of the desk, waiting for the other shooter.
I heard the footsteps near the door. “Dylan?” he called.
Dylan probably wasn’t going to answer, so I did. “Yeah, I’m in the chem lab.” Same philosophy in hunting. When the deer calls, you respond and draw it closer.
He entered the lab and I ducked behind the desk. “Find anyone?” he said. And then I imagine he found the body. He raised his rifle and fired randomly all over the room. He was enraged, not thinking to look. He blew open a window and the cold winter wind rushed into the room.
I held the girl down to the floor and waited. Pretty soon he would run out of ammo or --- click click --- his gun jammed.
I popped over the desk and fired. The bullets hit the wall to his left. He ducked back through the door and avoided the next burst.
I ran to the door and, keeping my back to the wall, I listened. I heard the rifle clatter to the floor. I turned into the doorway, and in a split second, aimed and fired at him. He saw me and then rolled away. He ran down the hall from the doorway. I had to follow him.
“Stay here,” I told the girl behind the desk. I fired down the hall and missed him the first time. I took aim again. Got him in the leg.
He was hobbling and turned down another hallway. I had to stay wary. I paused for a second. I listened. Click click. He was loading another weapon. I had to find some kind of cover in case he came out blazing. I ducked behind a row of lockers. There were enough to provide some kind of protection.
“Who’s out there?” I called.
“Depends,” I heard in reply. “Who’s the b**** with the rifle?”
I laughed. He had a sense of humor. “Joseph Andrews is my name.”
“Joseph? My name’s Michael Horvath.”
I remembered him. “Horvath? Why you doing this?”
I heard him c*** his weapon. Sounded like a shotgun. Probably with a shortened barrel so he could more easily conceal it. “This place is a hellhole. It has to be purged of those faggots who feel like they run it.”
Not one of these. “What’s the problem, Horvath? Can’t take a little teasing?”
He fired off a shot and I heard pellets ricochet off the lockers. One hit the locker door just to my right. “They beat me until I passed out!” he screamed. “Then they stuffed me in a locker until the next day of classes.”
I remember when that happened to me. A bunch of football players thought they would be funny to torture a couple of weak freshmen. They beat me until I fell to the ground and then kicked me until they broke my ribs. I hated those bastards. But I was at class the next day anyway. Thought it would be the best way to show my disregard for them. Show up the next day with my head held high.
“Don’t tell me you want to defend them. Don’t tell me you don’t think they deserve this.”
“If they did, why not just target them?” I said. “Why shoot up the whole place?”
“Because no one tried to stop them.”
“Did you tell anyone about this?” I poked my head out and saw him standing in the open. I turned from behind cover and fired downrange. I was running across the hall to another row of lockers. I pulled the trigger and got off three bursts before I was behind cover.
I heard the footsteps coming down the hall. He was jingling all the way. He fired a couple of shots at my locker row. He cocked the shotgun and I popped up.
One burst is all I got. One well aimed burst. And that got him. He grabbed his leg and buckled to the floor.
However, he still had his shotgun. I had to get him to drop it. “Put it down!” I shouted. He didn’t listen. “Put it down, Horvath!”
“F***ing make me.” He lifted the weapon and pointed it at me.
I fired another burst and hit him in the torso. He fell back and dropped his shotgun. I slung the rifle across my back and pulled out the revolver. I checked to make sure it was loaded and then walked out to him.
As I walked out to him, I felt a pain in the back of my arm. I touched the spot and pulled away my hand, blood covered my palm. I guess one of those shotgun pellets hit me.
He was breathing, but barely. I had hit him in the chest and in the torso. He was bleeding badly. I stood over him and kicked the shotgun away from his hand. He wasn’t making another move for it.
“You’re going to finish me off?” he said, looking up to me.
“Why?” I replied. “You’re already dying.”
“Put me out of my misery. Come on, Andrews. Show some mercy.”
“Killing you isn’t mercy. I did what I had to do.” I knelt down beside him, looking directly into his eyes. “This isn’t what I wanted at all.”
“This is what I expected. I expected to die here.”
“Did killing the idiots who gave you a hard time mean that much to you? Or did your own life mean that little to you?”
He laughed. I don’t think he knew the answer himself. He instead shot me another question. “Do you really think those bastards don’t deserve to be shot? For all the s*** they put people like me through? They deserve something.”
And now, my mother’s words came to me. I told him, “What does a child ever deserve but forgiveness? They deserve that.”
“You honestly believe that?”
“Maybe I do.”
He coughed and blood flowed from his lips. He wasn’t going to last much longer. “Then good luck living like that, Andrews.” He then exhaled one last time and dropped his head.
I checked his pulse. There was nothing. I closed his eyes and came to my feet.
It was then I realized what might happen when this story comes out. People might think me a hero, but I wasn’t. I was a kid who reacted for his own survival. I wasn’t thinking for others, I thought in order to make sure I made it through the day.
I turned from the body and began to walk back to the chem lab. That girl was probably scared to death.
But what else can someone do after something like this happens? They can be afraid. They can be angry. They can hate the people responsible, as I imagine the shooters’ mothers will hate me when they find I killed their sons. But I chose a different route. I had to forgive them. I forgive them for killing these people because it was all I could do. If I didn’t forgive them, I couldn’t forgive myself. It was because we both killed people, plain and simple. If you can’t forgive one, you can’t forgive the other.
I came through the chem lab door and looked for the girl behind the teacher’s desk. She was there, hugging her knees to her chest. I stooped down to her level and held her close. She began to cry in my arms. I just held her tighter, shielding her against the cold winter air. There are no words for moments like these. Only thing left to do hold each other tight and remind yourself that the birds will still be singing once the smoke clears.