“Rocky Mountain Ghosts” by Don Norum

“Rocky Mountain Ghosts” by Don Norum

You used to see the circle of crosses — thirteen of them, all facing the school — from B103, where I took trig. I think they put in a hedge, however, right alongside the back sidewalk, so now the class of ’12 can’t see the memorial to their former classmates.

I wouldn’t know for sure, though — I stopped going to school after the shooting. I only came back for the dedication ceremony to see how Dad handled it.

Thirteen marble slabs stand on the other side of the hill from the crosses. Nobody meant for the crosses to stay this long, but nobody can bring themselves to remove them, either. Twelve pieces of stone bear inscriptions of peace and remembrance in large, plain letters. Below each benediction, a name, and one date.

No need for the second. Everyone knows it, burned onto their hearts.

The thirteenth slab, tucked in amidst the others, stands out for the small size of the letters carved gray into the brown mirror of its finish. They had to write that small, to fit everything on.

In part:

“For the legalized murderers of infants yet unborn, the wicked in Government who hide beneath rocks from the light of Truth lest it expose their misdeeds and iniquities, and the Godless schools —

“There shall be no rest for the wicked, so saith the Lord God.”

Dad didn’t handle it well.

He kind of fell apart after I died.

* * *

Liam had drawn a locker right at the end of the hall, next to the doors leading outside. One-way doors, but that wouldn’t have mattered. A sharp jerk on the handle and they’d pop open.

With his back to me, I could see him pull his backpack out and fumble with it as he shuffled past Carolyn Khovanskaya and made for the door. I thought he’d decided to duck out to disc around a bit. Explained why he hunched over his bag.

(They used to let us have Frisbees — discs — for after school. That lasted until the middle of October, when Liam and I felt it too cold outside and threw around in the halls before Scrabble Club. Long story short, an air bounce turned into an edge-on side-skip off the tile floor, and careened straight into an occupied teacher workroom and so now we had to hide ’em.)

So I started jogging towards him, threading through the crowd. I could use a few minutes of backhands and flicks and hammers before English, I thought.

He turned around at the door — no one behind him, a hundred kids on break in front of him — and dropped his backpack.

The next part takes about two steps, maybe a second and a half. I think first that he heard me call his name, except I didn’t, I hadn’t said anything yet, and then he raises his hands and — I swear — I thought, the poor dumb bastard, why’d he bring his airsoft guns to school.

Carolyn says later, still wrapped in a silver shock blanket — she ducked into the boys’ bathroom — that I tried to tackle him, shouting for people to get down.

Maybe. I wish.

I see the guns and I just think, fuck, and I cringe and duck in mid-stride. The first bullet blew out my left knee — neat enough to make an IRA hard man proud. I start to fall forward, maybe that made Carolyn think I was diving for a tackle, and the next two bullets tag me in the gut and chest as I go down. One tumbled and tore through my stomach and ricocheted off my spine, the other went through-and-through my heart.

Hydrostatic shock stopped it mid-beat.

I remember falling into a tunnel and sliding forward into blackness, stopping with a gentle thud. Then I wake up.

* * *

I stand on the deck of a ship, in the moonlight. I think of the Exxon Valdez — the rusted bones of a dinosaur that surged to the surface to die and fossilize amid the swells. Not waves. No crashing water. Gentle sighs, in and out, never-ending sine waves of water glowing black under the night sky to the horizon and back.

Scales of brown and red, dark colors like old clotted blood, coat the deck beneath my shoes. I wander, find a staircase, and descend. My calls come back deadened, flat. The walls echo out of obligation, sucking the life out of my words before offering them back to me.

No one answers.

Light trickles out of a door ahead. Not illumination, but just a different shade of dull decay visible across the grating and bulkhead. Still no one answers.

I look around the edge of the hatch and see the small room beyond. A cockpit out of The Matrix left to rot in a jungle cave. Sheets of moss run along the seams in the iron plates and vines crawl down the walls from the ceiling like living stalactites.

Half a dozen LCD screens dot the walls like windows, held in place by encrusted brackets. A round porthole on the opposite wall looks out onto the dead saltwater around us, gibbous moonlight seeping in to pick out the layers of dust.

A young man in a black shirt and torn cargo shorts sits crouched in the middle of the room, his short brown hair up

in spikes, dust coating the gel. A row of keyboard fragments arcs around in front of him like a console, like a pulpit. His fingers tap and scratch across them, in time to the pixelated flames and bricks and shadows running across the dead LCD screens around us.

I say something, then shout it, and end up screaming. He doesn’t look up. The world swallows up whatever noise I make, replacing it with the empty wheezes of a universe that has moved on.

“This wasn’t your dream,” a woman says in a husky voice.

* * *

After the shooting stopped, someone took a cell-phone picture as the SWAT team yelled at them from the door. Not Carolyn, but maybe her brother. You can see my body in the foreground, three or four grainy black golems at the doors with ragged holes at the handles where the breacher rounds punched through sheet metal.

The slick of blood from where I slid has a single footprint visible, heading along the hallway away from the doors. Liam’s size ten and a half four-E paratroopers’ boot.

A blog runs the photo under the banner, “The Heroes of Bloody Monday”. If I could feel sick about it all, I would, and not just because my dead body and my blood anchor the composition.

The security camera aimed at the door from halfway down the hallway leaks its footage and corroborates various shards of a half dozen shattered recollections. You can see Liam turn to face away, towards the doors, and you can see me start to jog towards him. He turns back, I fall forward — it does look like I try to tackle him, at least from this angle — and the other students turn and bolt and run like a startled school of fish.

He’d picked a… tactically sound spot to open fire. No one behind him, a long hallway in front.

I never thought he’d do it. Christ, that sounds bad. Like what someone would say right after it turns out the kid had laid out their whole plan for them in writing.

Well, no, he didn’t.

Did we talk about stuff like that? Not a school, of course, but… Yeah, I mean, we played airsoft every now and then, laughed at the ambushes in Ronin, and played Splinter Cell until we caught ourselves circle-strafing around corners in real life and laughed some more, but this…

I didn’t even know he had the guns — the real ones — until after he shot me. He’d ordered one online, bought one in person, and biked out to Hydraulic Road to pick them up.

An eighteen-year-old senior with a clean background check. Didn’t need to pull a straw purchase or borrow dad’s guns. No problem. They even asked him on his way out the door if he needed any ammo with that, like fries, and he said that no, he thought he was set, thanks.

* * *

I think my dad might have handled it better if they hadn’t made me the hero at first. Sure, I knew Liam, but I didn’t have anything to do with it — that would have come out. An unfortunate tributary of the investigation, drying up, leaving me just another innocent victim.

But no, some quirk of coverage played me into a hero. Running into the gunfire like Rodger Young? Really? People wanted heroes, and I died in the right time and place for them to turn me into one.

When they cross-referenced peoples’ stories and figured out the timeline of those seconds, they got embarrassed, because now they had to print retractions amounting to “Dead Student No Hero, Investigation Reveals”.

When they found out that Liam and I had known each other — that was when they turned vicious. In their minds, and columns, they attacked me not just because I had been his friend, but because I hadn’t been the hero they’d thought.

I think that inversion of the grieving process — from idealized figure to the sordid details of life cast in the worst sort of mirror darkly — did it for my dad. He couldn’t handle it. Could no longer live as a part of the system that did that to his son at the same time he mourned my death.

I don’t know for sure, but I get that impression.

I know more than that, or I feel like I do, but I can’t get to it. Not like a dream, not exactly, but more like I’m trapped in a stream of thought, limited to what memories and perceptions bear relevance. The world outside seems hazy and far-off, a hundredth-order reflection as fake and diffident as a child’s crayon sketch, but as I start to reach for it I wake back up into another dream.

* * *

The footlights flicker and I sit in a theater. I recognize it as the downtown Jefferson, but I know — again, somehow — that the venue matters less than the performance. My mind fills in the hall around the bare stage, curtains drawn and cobwebbed.

The intricate gilding on the ceilings has vanished. Smooth plaster covers the walls and vaulting. The seats around me — dull slabs, populated by mannequins. As I watch, they blend further into the seats, the audience pulled up like taffy-stone and sculpted from the floor.

I turn back to the stage. The curtains have drawn back, and the farce has begun.

Three young men stand in a triangle, snarling about a teacher. A painted plywood drawing room provides the backdrop, a slot machine standing in the center on a small circle of carpet. It begins to spit out coins on its own, a never-ending stream piling up, the individual tokens shrinking away as they multiply until a smooth liquid flow pours over the edge of the stage.

The three boys fight, and a man springs up from the orchestra pit. They turn on him, snarling and punching, holding him down in the growing pool of gold, liquid and flowing at room temperature.

This man — their teacher — erupts up, flinging them into the front row. I sit along the aisle, ten rows back, and cannot see them land. I hear the crack of their necks and try to stand but my legs have frozen in place. I glance down, and they keep their outward color, but inside they have frozen as inert as the dumb stone seats surrounding me.

Onstage, the man’s face has turned into a composite sketch of the three boys, the single man that each one of them may grow into. The dialogue has stopped, and waves of emotion suffice. Pain, and triumph. Ferocity.

Police enter stage left and right. I try to open my mouth to call out to them, but their faces turn into blank masks, like the man’s. He shrinks in on himself until he vanishes from the dream, and the police drag a young Asian man in a black shirt and cargo pants onto the stage.

Dark eyebrows slash down beneath a shaved head. The mannequins of authority unfold the slot machine into a cross, and hoist the young man up towards it. I try to look away, to shut my eyes and scream as they shoot nails through wrists and ankles, but — trapped in someone else’s dream — I cannot.

From the cross the young man rips his hands free, bright freshets of blood gushing behind. The police start, their surprise bubbling up as it meets the vanguard of an all-encompassing self-igniting rage. Thin hands flash across holsters, feet flap free, and the man from the cross lands on the stage, arms thrown akimbo spread wide like Christ back on the cross, a pistol in each black-gloved hand and hat pulled low above tan vest.

He begins to shoot and each casing drops to the floor with a sound like a fist plowing into my gut.

“This is not your dream,” the woman says.

* * *

A girl from my high school dropped dead freshman year. Just stopped breathing in the middle of U.S. History and fell out of her seat. Turned out she’d had an embolism burst in her brain, a tiny one, and boom. Kaput.

Same thing with a friend’s grandfather — as the story went, the morning after his sixty-third birthday, he got up out of bed, said good morning to his wife, and his heart stopped. Again, no reason, no forty-five years of smoking or fifty years of bacon and eggs, just bang. Dead.

My point? That people’s hearts, guts, blood vessels can just go pop one day and kill them. Liam’s brain just went pop one day, I swear, and killed him, and twelve other people. Wounded twenty-three.

He had a Calico 9mm with the hundred-round cylindrical magazines. Didn’t need to waste time reloading.

I flit between images as I think these thoughts. See the girl, short red hair cut smooth around her head in the second row from the back, then the litter of sterile wrappers left behind by the paramedics. My friend’s grandfather — I never met him, only saw a photo once, but now I watch as he sits up in bed wearing a flannel night-shirt and mismatched loose blue bottoms.

I see Liam with his rifles and the whole scene plays over again like it did the first time, in slower motion now than when I died.

The first stuttering burst of fire traces out in a semicircle, going from the hip. Just enough to clear a space. He stalks forward and raises the Calico to his right shoulder, shattering windows and sending lead winging off of lockers, long bright streaks in the splintered paint.

It takes a long time for five seconds to pass. He drops the Calico — I see the magazine bounce free and begin to cough bullets as it clatters across the floor — and pulls the Ruger up from the sling round his neck.

I don’t recognize these guns — I didn’t then, and I wouldn’t now, except that now I know things. Some things. Who’s crying inside the restrooms, who’s looking up with knitted brow a hundred yards away and a floor up, that sort of thing. What I look like after twenty percent of the blood in my body leaks — pours — out onto the tile floor.

I still don’t know why he did it.

I never knew that he planned to do it. We hung out for a few minutes the night before, when I took my history textbook over so he could finish some citations for an essay. I had no idea he had the rifles stacked up in his closet, wrapped in old beach towels.

He didn’t leave any notes, beyond receipts and a signature on the purchase forms that looked like all the other times he’d ever signed his name. Nothing saying I knew anything about it — nothing that he’d ever known anything about it — but nothing saying that I didn’t. Not that it would have helped. Probably would have made it worse, even.

I blink out of my reverie and stand up. The hallway stretches behind me, whiter and brighter than before. A woman — pale skin below black hair, bloodless lips, and jagged henna eyebrows above black button-up shirt — stands, looking past me towards the ceiling. I step back and turn, and the normal milling crush of students appears.

Liam stands in front of me, small white earbuds tracing down his black T-shirt to his jeans, which are also black.

I think, this wasn’t the way it happened. He didn’t wear all black. I don’t see his backpack. I call out to him. I think that if we’re doomed to repeat the past, then we’re judged by what we do different.

He doesn’t hear me. One hand slides down and presses against his hip pocket and the music starts. I call out again, but this time I can’t hear myself over the swelling piano.

Liam raises his empty hands to his shoulder, sighting down an invisible stock, and starts squeezing his right trigger finger, mouth moving in time with the music. I can’t tell whether or not he sings along.

The woman in black stands in this hall — another hall, somewhere far away but close by, and getting closer, and it doesn’t make sense — and begins to walk towards him, black boots with dull silver catches stepping neatly in a line, one after another.

Music and Liam’s voice and my own silent screams all blend together. I can’t tell the difference between what is said or thought or happening.

Students start to scatter. Liam aims his hands and tracks them one by one. Some fall, sliding across the floor or slumping in place. Some dive for cover. I look around, waving my arms and shouting. Nothing. He fires again.

It’s a hit, but is he actually sure? The targets in the crowd are a blur. People are screaming just like they should, but I don’t even know if I’m good.

The woman walks closer, and I know that she’ll be here soon — here with Liam and with me.

I watch a girl — MacKenzie Adams, had English 9 with her — go down against a pillar. No blood, but she falls like Pinocchio, her strings cut. Liam walks past me and stops, a few feet in front.

I look at MacKenzie again. I could’ve saved you, baby, but it wasn’t worth my time, I think — hear — and shout. I reach for Liam’s arm and my hand passes through and I find myself back where I started, a step away with my arm cocked to reach out.

A boy I remember playing against on the JV football team takes a sprint towards Liam from the lockers, head low and arms pumping. Liam’s lips move, and match up to the song in my head, around us in the hallway. The woman comes closer.

You’re obviously not going to die, Liam sings, aiming, so why not take your chances and try….

He pulls his finger three times and the boy slides to the ground. He looks fine, but Liam’s mouth keeps moving and the song goes on.

His hands are gone and most of his head. And just when he was getting so good

It’s so simple, the way they fall. No cry, no whimper.

No sound at all.

I look down the long hallway, Liam in front of me, bodies thrown back against the wall and lying strewn stretching far and away, one last line echoing in my head, that I could’ve saved them, baby, but they were not worth my time. The woman is standing in front of Liam, his arms at his sides, her lips bright and red and face so wide and large beneath the black hair, her eyes burning.

She whispers something — what, I can’t hear, all sound has gone — and he falls down. Her eyes follow him to the floor.

Her eyes rise and meet mine. They lock beneath the baroque arches of her eyebrows.

You couldn’t save them, really, she says, and this never was your fault, and her voice is soft and sweet and husky. It was just their time, she says.

Now’s mine. My legs go out and I follow Liam to the floor, the tile cold and warm against my bare skin, and —

* * *

— It’s nine-thirty seven in the morning, the sixth of November. In three minutes Liam will put the muzzle of his semi-automatic Ruger 10/22 against his right temple and pull the trigger.

On the floor, I’m still bleeding. Gentle trickles now that my heart has stopped. The last shot rings out, five minutes before the SWAT team storms in ten feet away from my body.

I’m crying. Tears of relief, sorrow, joy, pain — I couldn’t tell you. Then I’m gone.

Don Norum writes things. Sometimes they are published.