I'm in a bathroom stall at the mall. It's three-thirty in the afternoon on a Saturday. And there's a guy with a gun outside.
I caught a glimpse of him before he started shooting. A guy who walked in through the emergency exit between the Teavana and the Taco Bell in the food court. He was dressed in all black. Black mask, black fatigues, black tactical vest. His rifle—a Ruger Mini-14 with a shortened barrel and a vertical foregrip, I'll find out later—was also painted all back. He wore black sunglasses.
The way he moved when he pulled the door open and stepped through, it was so casual. He almost had a swagger about him. He stepped out and pulled the door shut and looked around the place while nodding his head lightly like “oh yeah, this is what I came for”. I think I'm the only one who noticed. I'll bet he was grinning ear-to-ear underneath that mask when he first aimed aimed his rifle into the Gamestop.
He was wearing a backpack, also black. I'll bet it was full of ammunition because I've been in here at least half an hour and he's been shooting nonstop since I ran inside. Every now and then I'll hear a muffled boom, not like the gunshots. Maybe a pipe bomb or a molotov or who knows? Maybe he actually sprang for some black market grenades. I'm sitting on the toilet with my legs pulled up against my chest and I can't stop squeezing them in my arms. I have to pee but I can't bring myself to do it, not even right here in a bathroom stall. What if he comes in before I'm done? I don't want to die peeing. Christ, that would be lame.
I can't even call the police. I mean, I can, my phone is right here in my pocket, but what's the point? It's been over thirty minutes, somebody must have done it by now, right? But if that's true, then where the hell are they?
Oh well, it doesn't matter. I guess I'm just unlucky. See, here's the thing, this isn't the first catastrophe I've been through. Maybe not even the last, as far as I know.
I used to work at a day care. Bennett Hill Day Care, it was called. I can still remember the sign out front exactly, even the one N that's slightly bigger than the other because they repainted it after some teenagers drew a cock on it.
I was in high school. Summer break, actually, between junior and senior year. It was a bright, warm day in June and I was reading to a group of four year olds. A round-faced, blue-eyed boy named Adam was sitting in my lap. He had the highly distinguished job of turning the page when we reached the bottom. He took it very seriously.
I was near the end of the book and Tommy Turtle was just about to make it over the hill to his favorite tomato patch when I heard a commotion in the office near the entrance. I looked to the door and saw my boss arguing with someone. She's pointing her finger at the front door and shouting. I couldn't see the other person, but it looked like she wanted them to leave. I can still see the way her face looked when I heard the first shots. I saw her drop to the ground like someone invisible kicked her legs out from under her. The whole room went quiet and a man appeared at the doorway. I saw his long, unkempt hair, his wild eyes and Vietnam-esque camoflauge jacket. I saw his weapon, a .45 automatic, I'll find out later.
I don't remember if it was before or after he pointed it at us. I just remember my legs moving and everything else in a blur. Adam has fallen off of my lap and I'm going for the emergency exit and there are shots being fired behind me.
I think I ran about two blocks before I stopped and came to my senses. I look around and see no one. It's late morning on a weekday. There are no cars in the driveways, no people outside. I'm completely alone and everything is calm like nothing has happened. My hand goes to my back pocket and I check for my phone. It's not there. I left my phone in my purse in the front office.
I ran to the nearest house and frantically banged on the door, screaming for someone to come help. The door opened and an older woman with a terrified look on her face emerged from the house. I grabbed her by the arms and shook her. I could barely get the words out through all the sobbing. There's a man with a gun. At the day care. He's killing kids. Help. I need your phone. Neither of us knew it yet when she went to the kitchen and dialed 911, but it was already over by then.
His name was Rodney James Walker. It turned out he was a parent, estranged from his wife and kids, paranoid, and fucked up out of his mind on so many drugs, legal and illegal. His gun held eight rounds. According to the police report, he fired eight rounds, reloaded, then fired five more before shooting himself in the head. The incident lasted ninety-three seconds. I see him when I get back to the day care. The paramedics are wheeling him out along with the other casualties. I don't know why they didn't bother zipping the body bag up all the way. There's a half-dollar sized hole in the top of his head and his eyes are bulging out of his skull, but somehow he can still look right at me.
Over and over again on the news I see the pictures of the kids who didn't make it out. There's Maddie and Jacob, Emma and Robert. There's Mika. There's Adam. Oh god, Adam. They talk about the shooter and his possible motivations. They talk about my boss, shot through the head before she even realized what was happening. They talk about Anna, my coworker who died shielding a group of kids with her body. They talk about me, the girl who ran. The girl who left the rest of them to die.
My older brother is in the Marines, he served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He says that's perfectly normal, how I reacted. When human beings are put into a fight-or-flight situation, some of them just choose flight, and there's no way of predicting who's going to do what. He says he knew guys who had received the finest training in the world, who were all choleric as could be, the most bad ass sonsofbitches you'll ever meet, until the bullets start flying and suddenly they're crumpled up and hugging the wall, trying to dig into the earth while their buddies are up and shooting. He says, they all say, that I did the right thing, I found help. They conveniently leave out the part where help was already on its way while I was still running. They forget that what happened is already over, and there's no getting out of it. Every time someone talks about Bennett Hills, every time it's written about or thought about, I'll be there, me, the girl who ran.
Now I'm here in the ladies' room at the Layton Mall with my legs tucked up under my chin while elsewhere in the building some other psycho enacts his revenge fantasies or whatever his motivation is. Amazing how I tend to attract trouble, isn't it?
I'm still debating over whether I should swallow my pride and take a piss when I hear footsteps outside the restroom. They're heavy, deliberate. I think, it's him.
The footsteps get louder, echoing through the tile walls of the restroom. They have a halting cadence to them. One-two-three, pause, wait, then more steps. I'm shaking. I hold my breath until they're right in front of me and I can see them under the stall door. A pair of black boots, bloodstained but with the laces still knotted perfectly. I let my breath out and it's louder than the voice of God.
Then he steps back. It doesn't dawn on me until he actually does it that he's going to kick in the door; somehow I expected he'd just push it open. But he kicked it and everything seemed to shake from the shock. He kicked it two, then three times before the door swung open and he was right in front of me with is rifle shouldered and that stupid invisible grin on his face. He pulled the trigger right as I closed my eyes.
Then I hear a click, a misfire. He curses out loud and tosses the rifle away, then pulls his pistol from a leg holster. When he's raising it to my head, something comes over me and I jump off the toilet right at him. I catch him in his midsection and he pulls the trigger. I don't even hear the gunshot as the two of us fall backwards. His head slams against the sink on the opposite wall and it shatters, showering the two of us with bits of porcelain when we land in a heap on the linoleum.
I brush the dust off of my face and look down at him. He's moving his head slowly from side to side and moaning softly. I see a piece of jagged porcelain on the floor next to his head. All the anger and the guilt, the revulsion and the self-hatred. Not just mine, but also, somehow, everyone else's. It's all coming out of me and it won't stop and I pick up this piece of a sink that's the size of a softball and I bring it down on the guy's head over and over again. He raises his arm to try and stop me but I'm already midway through my third swing and I think I've just broken his skull. His arm goes back down and he goes limp, but I keep on hitting him. At least for a full minute before I freeze with my weapon, bright red and dripping, suspended right next to my face. I look down at him. I wouldn't be able to say why, but I needed to see his face. I just killed this guy and I have to know what he looks like. I drop the porcelain and grip his ski mask with both of my hands and pull it off his head.
He's a young guy, probably around my age. He's got curly, jet black hair that reaches halfway down his neck and a scraggly beard and mustache like he gave himself a clean shave on Monday and figured that'd be it for the week. His mouth is open and his eyes are half-lidded, gazing right up at me. They're green.
His body twitches and I jump in surprise and—almost automatically—I look around. The restroom looks totally normal except for the broken sink and this guy that I just killed that I'm straddling like some two dollar whore. There's a noise to my right. I look over and something—a flashbang grenade, I'll find out later—bounces off the wall and lands a couple of feet away from the two of us. It sits there for a second before it detonates. Then everything goes blank.
When I'm lucid again I'm sitting in the open doors of an ambulance in the parking lot with strips of gauze over my ears. A paramedic is kneeling in front of me, suturing up my thigh. I try to stand up, and a police officer standing next to me puts his hand on my shoulder and tells me to relax. He tells me I'm safe and that the danger is over. I tell the officer that I want to get up and walk around, and I could really use a cigarette. The paramedic shakes his head and says I've lost too much blood. It doesn't look like that much, I say, but fine, whatever. At some point, a man and a woman in FBI jackets walk over to us and start talking to me. I can barely hear them over the ringing in my ears so I just nod and say “uh-huh” when it seems appropriate. Apparently I'll need to be taken to a safe place that's isolated from the media while they continue their investigation.
After a while the paramedic finishes up and the police officer walks away. The man and woman look at each other and tell me to come with them. They lead me to a black car with no license plates and windows that are tinted what I'm sure is well beyond the legal limit. The FBI man hands me a cigarette and tells me to get inside.
It's three nights later and I'm in a hotel room in a different city, watching CNN's 24 hour news coverage of the Layton Mall Shooting. My hearing is still a little messed up, but it looks like there's an expert of some kind criticizing the police response time, saying that the shooting went on nonstop for fourteen minutes—I swear to god I thought it was more—and the chief of the LPD should be fired, no, prosecuted! After all, without any warm body to blame, this is his fault, right? Now they're showing my picture. It's a terrible one, my senior photo. Jesus, is that really the most recent one they could get? I thought it would take longer, what with the name change and all, but they've already connected the dots and figured out it's the same girl who ran from Bennett Hill Day Care when some guy burst in and started plugging kids left and right. The FBI confiscated my phone and laptop, so instead I looked on one of the public terminals in the lobby, and yep, the conspiracy crowd is already grasping for an explanation. I mean, yeah, how weird is it that the same girl is present at two completely different mass shootings? So I must be Illuminati. No, I'm a reptilian. No, a crisis actor. Actually, I don't exist at all, the whole thing was fabricated by the CIA.
Whatever the reason is, I guess this was my chance at vindication. It had to be, right? It's not like beating a mass murderer to death in a ladies' room would've been my first choice. Even if I had a choice, I'm not sure I'd have taken it. Because after all those years of survivor's guilt and therapy and loved ones telling me I shouldn't blame myself, even after all of that, there's no real catharsis, no relief. I feel the exact same here in this hotel room as I did right after Bennett Hill, except for the ringing in my ears that the doctor tells me will never completely go away.
My phone buzzes on the nightstand and look over at it. It's a number I don't know, probably a reporter who wants my side of the story, the one I never had the chance to tell except to the police and a handful of friends and family.
The buzzing continues. The police warned me not to talk to reporters until the investigation is over. No need to complicate things, they told me. It sounds like reasonable advice, but I figure if I'm ever going to start doing things for myself, it might as well be now. I roll over and pick up the phone and hit 'Accept'.