“Shooter,” by Kyan Yauchler, is the First Place winning story in the thriller category for the Eighth Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, including an exclusive interview with Grand Prize winner Sandra Anthony and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine. And click here for more information about entering the Ninth Annual Popular Fiction Awards.
In this bonus online exclusive, you can read Kyan’s winning entry.
by Kyan Yauchler
My name is Darren Cooper, and I think I’m responsible for my girlfriend getting shot. It wasn’t me who did it—god, no. But if it weren’t for me, it never would have happened. In any case, it probably all started because of that stupid shirt. There was more to it than that, of course, but that’s how it all started. You see, I’m a junior at Memorial High School; a place that I’m positive will never be the same after everything that happened. After the shooting, the entire building became a kind of memorial—something my English teacher, Mrs. England, would have called “situational irony."
Ironic, sure. But definitely not funny.
So, back to the shirt. It was Monday morning, a time when I’m sure most crappy things happen in the world, and Jessica and I were walking to school like we always did. She had been going on about her mom again, how everything in the world was hell because of that bitter, often drunk woman. I totally understood, and I told her that, but it didn’t seem to make any difference. To top it all off, she was wearing that ridiculous shirt with a sheep on the front. Not just any sheep. It had actual wool that stood out along its fat belly, and plastic googley eyes that rolled around when she walked.
In order to understand why she was wearing the stupid thing, you’d have to know Jessica. She’s beautiful. She’s almost as tall as me, and I’m six feet. She has olive skin, sharp green eyes, and long, dark hair. The problem is that she hates getting attention for her looks. In fact, the main reason that we started going out last year was because I was too chicken to hit on her. We were lab partners in Biology, and she liked the fact that I didn’t try to flirt, didn’t constantly talk about myself, and didn’t stare at her boobs when I thought she wasn’t looking. (Actually I did, but she just never caught me.)
I never would have said anything to her outside of class, but it happened one day that some schmuck knocked my books to the floor a few lockers down from hers. Jess was cool as a cucumber—tripped this guy as he walked by her and turned to face him head-on when he stood up, red-faced and swearing. To this day, I don’t know what she said to him, but he fake-laughed it off and disappeared. I would have seemed like a jerk if I hadn’t thanked her, and that led to lunch together, then a movie. The rest is history.
We had a good thing—all she wanted was respect, which I was happy to give, and all I wanted was her. Not just because she was beautiful, either. Because she was real—sometimes cautious, sometimes callous, but always real.
So there was Jessica, walking to school, complaining about her mom—who is a complete head case if I’m honest—and wearing that stupid shirt to show the world that she didn’t care about her looks. Guys wanting to ogle her chest would see the sloppy- eyed sheep looking back, mocking their stupid stares.
I was trying to listen and be supportive as we walked, I really was. But I kept watching those silly eyes bounce around in circles as she complained, and thinking that she should just get over it already.
“Why do you have to wear that thing?” I finally asked.
She stopped walking and looked at me with ice in her eyes. “Are you even listening?”
“Yeah, your mom’s being a bitch again. Got it.”
“Not just a bitch, Darren, she’s driving me crazy. I seriously don’t think I can stay there anymore.”
It wasn’t a new situation. I listened to her recount the argument they’d had the night before and nodded sympathetically, but it was getting heavy. She was getting heavy. Every day was worse than the one before and there really wasn’t a solution. Her dad had been gone for several years, having gotten out before Jessica’s mom got bad. I think he was probably the smartest one of the bunch, but he was still an asshole for leaving his kid behind. Jess stayed with him every other weekend, but he traveled a lot for business, so often times he wasn’t even home when it was her weekend. Needless to say, it wasn’t an option to go live with him, though she’d tried in the past.
My mind drifted and I watched those eyes loop and goggle, dance and jitter beside me, then finally come to rest inside their little plastic bubbles. She had stopped and was staring at me.
I looked up at her. “What?”
“Just forget it,” she said and began walking again, clutching her books to her chest, crushing that stupid sheep.
We didn’t talk the rest of the way to school, something I now regret more than anything. I kept trying to think of something to say, then deciding that it had already been said before. When she was having a particularly rough time at home, there simply were no right words. So I stayed quiet, not knowing that it would be our last conversation.
When we got to school she disappeared into the throngs of students in the hallway and didn’t look back. I was rummaging through my locker, brooding about how long I should wait to talk to her, when the tardy bell rang. This was another thing that didn’t seem significant at the time, but had an effect like that of Bradbury’s butterfly in “A Sound of Thunder”—one that Mrs. England promised we’d like for more than the dinosaur hunting.
Being tardy meant that I had to go to the office and get a pass. When I pushed through the glass door, there were five people in line ahead of me, and the attendance secretary was on the phone. We stood there for a full five minutes before she began writing out unexcused late passes in painfully slow cursive. Finally, it was down to me and a small freckled boy who looked like he was going to cry for getting his first late pass. He started explaining his situation to the secretary and then begging for an excused pass because his parents were going to kill him otherwise. If only he knew.
It might have been the office fiasco that helped things to progress the way that they did, because by the time the shots started ricocheting through the hallways, Mr. Benson, the principal, had come in to calm the kid down. If he hadn’t, maybe he would have escaped with his life—might have stayed in his office, or had time to get a vest on— but as it happened, he walked into the hallway at the first sound and took a bullet in the neck. He fell like a crash test dummy against the floor to the sounds of shrieking.
I couldn’t move. My first thought was that it wasn’t real. It couldn’t be. This kind of thing happened in other schools in other cities, and it didn’t look like this. But there I was, watching through the glass office panes as a pool of blood formed under Mr. Benson’s balding head while his eyes stared blankly. What finally got me moving was the thought of Jessica, cowering somewhere with a classroom of screaming kids, those stupid sheep’s eyes rolling around. I had a sickening image of blood soaking up in that fuzzy wool, and my feet finally engaged.
I don’t exactly remember how—time got weird from the time Benson’s head hit the floor—but somehow I got past the front desk, past the office lady who was shouting something into the radio, and into a back hallway where it was distinctly quieter. I stopped then, because I didn’t know where I was. I had always thought that there was only Mr. Benson’s office and a lounge in the back recesses of the office, but here was a long hallway leading off to the right with doors every few feet. I heard another boom from somewhere down the hall and then the fire alarm went off.
A grinding, blaring noise pulsed through the air, crashing into my ears as I stumbled down the hallway, pulling on door handles and bordering on shock. There was something so unreal about the whole thing—the blood was too red, the screaming too loud, and my damn legs were thousand pound weights attached at the numb stumps of my thighs. I found an open door and fell into a small, dark room with filing cabinets and a desk, but no people. Where was everyone?
I slammed the heavy wooden door shut behind me and sank down to the floor away from the thin strip of light that shone in from the crack at its base. Somewhere out there a kid had a gun and he was shooting. People.
My breath came in short bursts, I felt like puking. As I sat there, my back pushed up against the bottom of a cold metal filing cabinet, I nearly passed out.
Five minutes passed. Ten. I kept hearing the crack of a gun and the sickening scream of someone in terror, between howls of the fire alarm. It was not like the movies. God, not like them at all.
I put my head in my knees and wrapped my arms around my ears, trying to drown out the noise. But the droning of the alarm went on and on, winding its claws into my skull until I was sure I would go mad.
Then suddenly, it stopped. And with it went the lights.
My heart did a backflip in my chest as I realized that I was, for the first time in my life, in complete darkness. There were no windows in the back hallway of the office, and certainly no windows in the tiny filing room in which I was hiding.
I flailed blindly for a second, pawing at the door, searching for the handle. I could feel the darkness on my face, the warmth of my own breath, just out of reach. At any moment I expected to feel the cold blade of a knife push its way painfully into my ribs or a bony, dry hand grabbing my face. Just as my knuckle brushed against the handle, I heard a sound that stopped me; a girl screaming. And not just any girl—Jessica.
The room grew painfully quiet as I listened hard, waiting to hear it again. My pulse thrummed in my ears and I strained to control my breath. Had it really been her? There were over two thousand kids in the school, and I wasn’t stupid enough to believe that the only girl I really cared about just happened to be the one I’d heard. Still…
The lights flicked and then came on again, illuminating the room faintly with the bar of light from below the door. In the eerie glow, I saw my surroundings come into focus. Three walls were lined with filing cabinets, and a low table stood next to the door, crammed with baskets of papers and cups of pencils. I wished to god there was a phone, but the walls were bare.
That scream still echoed in my ears as I did something I’d imagined doing since my first day of in-school suspension, spent staring at the ceiling. First, I listened at the door. Nothing moved, so I quickly climbed up onto the table, nearly upsetting a stack of papers, then knelt on the top of a tall filing cabinet. My head bumped a large drop-ceiling tile, and I pushed it up and out of the way, feeling the cool rush of air from that dark cave above.
Standing, the upper half of my body disappeared into the attic area. It smelled like dust and steel, but there were small specks of light poking up through the ceiling tiles that spread out before me in an endless checkerboard. Every so often the top of a cinderblock wall poked up into the space, one of which was next to me. Several feet above that were metal cross beams that ran off into the gloomy distance, and a web of thin wires hung down like spiders’ legs, holding up the ceiling.
I grabbed the beam above my head and pulled myself up onto the cinderblock wall, my sneakers dipping into the hollow center before I got my balance. Below, a morbid cry was followed by another explosion, which echoed through the vast space around me like a cannon. Whoever was down there was close—in the office. My mind flashed to that freckled kid, crying at the thought of his stupid tardy, and I wondered what his orange hair looked like soaked in blood.
I squatted quickly and pulled the ceiling tile back into place, nearly losing it. I cursed at the thought of watching it float down to the floor and trying to lunge after it. Instead, my fingers dug into the soft material, and I saved it just as it swung down through the hole. I settled it into place and stood again quickly, fighting the urge to go careening down the narrow ledge away from the sound of the gun. The thin metal beam dug into my hands, and I forced myself to relax. I could smell rust and steel and insulation, the combination of which reminded me of blood.
The muffled sound of sirens outside was a relief—somewhere there were cops on the way. Whoever was down there apparently heard them too, because a long, hoarse cry went up below me outside the office, and moved down the hall. He was taking someone with him.
“No…no, no, nooo!” It was too distorted to identify, but it was a girl and that was enough to get me moving again.
I tight-rope walked down the wall, grabbing the beam hand-over-hand as I went, balancing my sneakers along the edges of the dusty bricks. When I came to an intersection of walls, I paused to rest and listen. The screaming had stopped, but there were thumps and crashes going down the hallway toward the south end of the building.
How many kids were still inside? How many dead? And Jessica. I knew I could wait where I was until the police or SWAT came in, but the thought lingered that it was Jess being dragged down the hallway to her death. Or worse, to her rape. My ears grew hot and my fingers clenched tighter around the sharp beam.
Another long scream followed by a gunshot erupted from the end of the hall. In my mind’s eye I saw Jessica’s face contorted in pain, her hands covering a bloody hole in her chest. In that moment, the lights flicked out again, burying the stuffy attic in a vacuum of light.
Without thinking, I jumped.
The unforgiving floor pushed my knees up into my chest as I attempted to roll, crushing the ceiling tile beneath me as I fell. My head bounced off of the lockers with dizzying force, barely missing the concrete wall, and I came to stop facing up the hallway toward the office. Benson’s lifeless corpse stared back at me. He looked serene in the shadows, like he’d just decided to lie down for a minute, maybe sleep off a few too many beers. That was, except for the black pool that surrounded his face.
Beyond him, through the front doors, I could see the cacophony of crowded people and police cars drenched in sunshine, which stood out sharply against the shadows inside. The image was strange and silent and looked like a horrible movie being played with the sound off.
I rolled to my back and sat up, directly in line with a figure at the far end of the hall. He was maybe two hundred yards away, wearing a dark jacket and ball cap. By the time I realized he was holding a gun, the concrete near my head exploded.
Rolling and crawling frantically, I found a small alcove next to one of the science room doors, which was created by a narrow wall protruding a few feet into the hallway. I slapped my back against it and pushed to my feet, rubbing a shard of concrete from my cheek.
Jess was in serious trouble—that much was certain. I wasn’t going to make it down that hallway with bullets flying toward my head—that much was stupidly obvious. I considered the classroom behind me. Maybe I could go out the window, circle around the outside and get back in on the far end of the hallway.
No good. I realized I’d be seen immediately by the cops and teachers, and be hauled off into a crowd of sobbing teenagers and emotionally deranged parents. There was no way I was going to leave Jessica, not after being an ass to her that morning. Maybe if I hadn’t said anything about that stupid shirt she’d be with me instead of a bullet hole away from death. We’d have hung at my locker, snuck in a kiss before class, and that would have been it. Another boring day at Memorial High.
But it wasn’t. The end of the hall was silent as I strained my ears for the sound of shoes on the tiles, or the rustle of clothing.
I heard nothing.
Risking a peek, I saw the hallway was empty save a few shell casings on the floor where the shooter had been. Beyond them the daylight shone in from one of the doors leading outside, casting long, thin bullet shadows on the floor. I had the sudden urge to run down the hall.
Instead, I darted across the hallway and pressed my back against the lockers on the other side. I moved slowly along the wall, feeling the bump of handles and hinges on my spine. My heart was pressing its way onto the back of my tongue, my knees liquid, but I knew I had to move. How could I not? It was my stupid mistake that had gotten us there. I wouldn’t forgive myself if Jess got hurt. She had a shitty enough life without my help, and it wasn’t going to end like this.
As I neared the end of the hallway, I froze. From where I stood, perhaps fifteen feet from the empty shells on the floor, I saw a man in black clothing and black glasses holding a rifle. He was pressed into an exterior corner of the school, a virtual brick in the wall. If I hadn’t been jacked on adrenaline, I might have missed him.
But there he was, gun on me.
Instinctively, I raised my hands and shook my head. My mind flooded with relief as he vaguely nodded, and I realized that I wasn’t going to be shot. And I wasn’t going to have to turn the corner and face whatever was on the other side alone.
There were no sounds from Jessica, which scared me. I jerked a thumb in the direction of the shooter, and waved fervently for the guy to come in.
At first I thought he didn’t see me, as he leaned back from the wall, peering down the length of the school. Then he turned back to me, gave another single nod, motioned for me to stay put, and disappeared along the outside of the building.
The next five minutes were the longest of my life. I can’t describe what it was like to stand there, my back pressed up against the lockers, listening for something—anything. The shout of the sniper, followed by gunfire. Jessica’s cry of relief. I needed to get out of there. Needed to get to Jess, but if I moved I’d ruin the element of surprise. Then again, the shooter had definitely seen me—was probably expecting me to come. I couldn’t imagine why the sniper had told me to stay put. That sure as hell couldn’t be protocol.
And what if the shooter came back?
I had nearly made up my mind to run out the doors and chase after the sniper, when the sound of glass breaking farther down the hallway stopped me. Then there was the sound of Jessica—very much Jessica, and no one else in the world—screaming. It was a scream I had heard only once before—fear and anger and frustration lumped into one gut-wrenching cry.
Images of blood filled my head as I ran on numb feet down the hallway toward the sound. The asshole sniper had shot the wrong guy, or the shooter had seen him and shot Jessica. Oh, hell, if she was dead I was going to puke and fight and probably get shot.
I rounded a corner, and nearly screamed at the sight of the office secretary in a bloody pile on the floor. Beyond her, the hall was empty. Then a groan from my left came from an open classroom door. Through a shattered window on the far side of the room I saw the sniper, his rifle trained on the shooter, also now on the floor. Thank god. Oh, Christ, thank you, I thought.
“Jessica!” I called, scanning the room.
The sniper’s head snapped up, but I waved him off. “You got him. Not me! Where’s Jessica?”
It was a stupid question, one he wasn’t going to know. I stumbled into the room, nearly tripping over the shooter, and inadvertently kicked his gun as I did. It went skidding across the floor and bounced off a metal table leg. I was momentarily stunned. My mind froze as I watched the gun spin slowly and then stop, pointing toward the wall. The guy outside was shouting for me to get down, but I couldn’t move. Reality was crashing in with the force of a truck. Where was she?
The voice was small and tired.
I turned toward the figure on the floor, the one with Jessica’s voice, and saw those green eyes looking up at me from beneath a ball cap. My ball cap.
Stupid. I should have recognized it before.
It was my last thought before I passed out cold.