Nov 092014
 

Bruce StoneBruce Stone

 

This is gonna hurt a little. The shooter mouths these words in a hush, the syllables squashed and slurred, just coded exhalations of cotton mouth and brimstone, aimless as smoke rings, not quite turned to purpose vis-à-vis the face of the woman behind the plate glass. With one hand beyond the shooter’s line of sight, she’s got a death grip, he knows, on the handle of the guard door, all of the blue veins bulging wildly, desperate to halt his ingress.

His mother.

The fact that she’s raving registers in the foremost aperture of the shooter’s consciousness, but the knowledge remains wadded in the gauze of déjà vu, as if all of this had happened long ago, as if he’s peering through the telescope of the rifle barrel into memory. At this range her face appears to dilate, a slab of putty warped and seething, patches of psoriasis like chemical burns. The jowls saw violently, their imperative thrust and grind arresting, almost hypnotic, muted behind the glass, flab corkscrewed in a snarl, of a sudden erupting in batshit contortions that send the button-mole rollicking on the lip. She pauses, maybe to let the upshot of the words sink in, tongue lazing in the dry salvage behind the parted teeth, as if she’s mouth-breathing, panting, then the whole arrangement snaps again into motion, head weaving on its stalk, lashes thrumming distress signals through the bite and wheeze of her harangue.

A little girl, still clutching in her hand the tardy slip she has recently been issued but will never need again, stares balefully in the background of this silent movie.

From her post behind the counter, the woman must have spotted the shooter as he approached, all kitted out and badass as hell, striding down the hall like the second fucking coming about to descend upon the cringing hostiles of Gilbert S. Lance Elementary. This is no exaggeration. The shooter doesn’t need to pad the record of his legend—that was strictly for amateurs, conduct unbecoming. Because even agitated, even with every nerve blazing, a shooter manages to retain his self-prepossession, his lethal cool. Take the boots, for example. The shooter had no quarrel with the boots, the boots were optimal, heavy clawed and steel-toed, black as carbonized lead, adding a bit of thump and tremor, a bit of menace and mayhem to his customary mincing steps. Sure, they hobbled the shooter just enough to make him self-conscious of each footfall, the secret-guarding clench of his scrawny buttcheeks, but the new consciousness, this had its special pleasures, its novel advantages.

The plugs too contributed a fresh note of terror, a spike of the demonic, to the horrorshow of his birth-defective ears—the top ridges bowed-out and down-curled awnings of flesh, pale, waxy and crimped like the ears of bats—which he often contemplated self-doctoring with a penknife (the first incision had hurt like a motherfucker, the wound had healed badly). And he couldn’t hear a goddamn thing! Almost. At times, the shooter could discern bubbles of muted sound stirring in his head. But if the shooter is being honest, if the shooter is to make a scrupulous real-time account of his glory blaze, the Kevlar didn’t really fit all that great. When the shooter had checked his assembled image in the mirror at home, the Kevlar looked—no two ways about it—like nothing so much as the too-big life jacket, clunky and unwieldy, his mom had strapped on him long ago, snapshot at the beach, that save-me! fluorescent orange and mom’s plausible smile and the skittish waves dissolving in retreat under his pitiless child’s gaze. Initially, the shooter had been of two minds vis-à-vis the donning of the armor, but eventually, the shooter had conceded to necessity and suited up. A shooter needs to make allowances if he’s gonna leave a mark.

So maybe the shooter had looked a little ridiculous, shambling with his tight-assed stride in his too-clompy boots and his too-big vest, shoulder-strap fanny-pack for an ammo pouch, this gangly monster lurching toward his mom, burning with a savage pride, as if to show her the awful thing that she’d wrought. On the outside, maybe a bulky, ill-fitting carapace. But on the inside, the shooter was all valor, a warlord dipped by the toe, headfirst, in gods’ brew. The shooter felt gold-plated, bulletproof.

When the shooter squeezes the trigger of the AK, the weapon rumbles spasmodically in his grip, and the cheek-to-stock weld gives. Muffled soundtrack. General sense of catastrophe. Three maybe four bullets leak out at a rate of 2300 feet per second, so impact is more or less immediate. The plate glass explodes in winking weightless shards, in the same instant the woman’s face is wiped clean of all humanity, shredded and dripping gore even before the body has time to discompose and fall. Just behind the corpse, the little girl, blonde hair, daisy hair band, cowers by the counter, one arm raised above her head, the hand gripping the ledge as if for support, shelter, her mouth torn open, eyes tight shut— posture of a scream which wilts and oozes through the rubber bulbs of the plugs, finding a home.

Bye, Ma, the shooter thinks, surprised to discover that he feels almost nothing, no regrets, no remorse, hardly a soupçon of joy. The shooter takes stock, peruses the collateral damage to the far wall, plaster pocked with holes in a simple pattern like a check mark. The wall clock, unfazed, carves notches in the wheel of time. Lightly, just a click, hardly more than a toggle bump, the shooter fingers the trigger again.

*

The shooter had expected bedlam to ensue. The sound of the weapon must have echoed all up and down these halls, but the architecture remains eerily becalmed, guarding secrets. No gym teachers come bounding down the passageways like apocalypse zombies with whistles and buzzcuts to meet the hero’s welcome of his AK muzzle. No teary kids make wild dashes for the exits, heads down, denim soiled, eyes agog. No creeping janitor crepitates behind the moving target of his wheeled garbage can. The place is solemn, charged with disapproval, silent and still as the ghost town that it’s becoming. The only downside to the plugs is that you can’t really hear anything except the slosh and gurgle of your own life’s essence. Probably barricading doors, the shooter thinks. Probably trying windows. Probably planning getaways.

In days after, the shooter knows, people will try to rationalize what has transpired. They will speculate, the shooter knows, they will probably besmirch his good name, say the shooter’s got some mental defect, like a retard, like that half-wit Purdy who couldn’t shoot his way out of a wet paper bag, who couldn’t shoot to save his life on his birthday, the imbecile. No, the shooter, by dint of raw shooting prowess, would set the record straight. He had all his marbles in the bag. He was way smarter than they gave him credit for. It’s like that, the shooter thinks, draping the AK athwart his body, letting the muzzle for the moment fall.

The shooter is on the move now, a methodical sweep of the corridor, past the aluminum drinking fountain and the bathroom doors—boys, girls—behind which extend the banks of mirrors in which all of the heartache concentrates, all suffering comes to a head. Backpacks on coat hooks line the walls in paralleling recession; at the far end of the hall, the terminus, the distant citadel, the glass bands of the exit doors. In the first room along the inward wall—a notational 2 engraved on its name-plate—darkness obtains. The shooter awards no bonus points for quick thinking, but resolves instead to grant a modest life extension for the hostiles in Room 1 while he storms in to teach the switch-happy occupants of Room 2 a proper lesson. He turns the handle—unlocked!—and boots the door in with a bang. Inside, rafts of anemic daylight stream through the blinded windows, so the shooter moves in the half-light, gliding past the Tetris blocks of desks —wee, they were, toy, sad composite things of sandboard and tin—like a proper Brobdingnagian, a giant loosed upon the puny villagers, fucking Godzilla in Kevlar. The shooter doesn’t so much see the occupants as feel them, crouching there by the back wall, beside the reptile tank where a benumbed box turtle lies prostrate under a heat lamp. The kids aren’t yet hyperventilating, their faces not yet streaming with the terror of recognition, the abomination of knowledge. Probably think he’s just fooling. The teacher knows. She knows the shooter. She’s seen him with his mom about town, at the PDQ, the Target, in the school parking lot, haggling over car keys, gazing impassively into the torture-chamber of memory. She’s not talking yet, not yet negotiating for the lives of her charges. Because maybe she thinks that the shooter will lose his nerve. Maybe, she thinks, the shooter won’t have the juice to pull the trigger. Maybe she thinks the shooter lacks follow-through.

She’s crouched at the head of her phalanx of charges, arms spread in a V behind her, protectively, a human shield in creased slacks and white top with a bowing lunar rim. From her neck a spirographic cross dangles meekly on a chain. Above the cleavage. That’s what it’s called. The boy most immediately abutting her armpit fidgets and shifts, his body quaking in a soccer jersey, probably from the Target, and the shooter peers directly into the puffing muzzle of his doughy face which catches the window light and shines. Bangs shorn unevenly, as if he did it himself, tiny unfocussed eyes, melon-headed… Mongoloid, the shooter allows, the boy’s mouth drawn in a permanent grin, a cheerful smear of lips about which nothing could be done, as if even mortal terror were a goddamn treasure, a special treat that he alone could divine. Well, shiit, the shooter thinks, rapidly parsing the faces massed behind the apparently untouched-in-the-head teacher. Black girl in looping pigtails, triple-thick lenses in her glasses, goofiest set of buckteeth the shooter has ever beheld. The cagey, guarded boy—is he ooomphing?—sort of squirting with pent-up noises that make advances on the tombal silence welling behind the plugs—eyes all pupil, pitchdark eyes, betokening some kind of defect, a grade of autism. And then the scrawny little rat with the food—cupcakes?—gumming up his face, and the shooter thinks, Well, shiiit, because he’s ambushed maybe the shiniest crop of mooncalves in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Not exactly propitious.

The shooter cottons, through the plugs, more a matter of motion than sound, that the teacher is negotiating now. If the shooter has to say so himself, he’s a pretty decent lip-reader, and he thinks he discerns the words special needs, this with an imploring arch to the eyebrows. He definitely catches the upshot of Please They don’t understand. The teacher’s eyes spit tears down her beefy face, but she doesn’t betray any of the other signs, facial gestures and whatnot, indicative of terror. Almost reluctantly, as if disdainfully, with his bionic gamer’s trigger finger he flips the lever on the stock from full to semiauto. Reconsiders. Full. And then he empties the clip in the vicinity of the reptile tank, AK erupting with seismic gutturations, sizzling fury, spraying fire like deliverance, and high above the carnage, as if from a vast distance, the shooter tallies up the damage, the bodies felled instantly, pitted and broken, poses of agony, blood seep steady and silent, the vanished turtle maybe amazed, in the moment before death, at the sensation of being airborne, vacuumed all at once out of captivity, liberated. In the new-forged calm, the stench rises as a single unit, a solitary integer of sewage-smell, and from that toxic bubble of putrefaction the shooter reckons that one or more of the victims have been gutshot, maybe the black girl there, the shooter considers, lowering his weapon, placing the free hand over his nose and mouth, drawing now the brimstone scent of his own slick palm. Total annihilation, the shooter reckons, craning for some sense of satisfaction, but finding just this pique of attention, this novel awareness. He hadn’t anticipated that the splintering of bone would be quite so VISIBLE, that the split of flesh might expose to the air the clean white edge of the MANDIBLE, and should the wounds be fucking SMOKING like that? And the shooter watches them, wisps of smoke rising like party streamers from the gory sinkholes of the impact wounds, and the shooter considers that maybe he overdid things with the Silverbullet Gun Oil beforehand, embarrassed snort of pride fizzing in his palm, but above everything, the shooter in a figurative sense drops to a knee and sort of bows in honor of the awful responsibility, the dread beauty of the directive, Leave no living thing alive.

*

The shooter proceeds methodically, unhurried, sweeping room to room with a dreamlike slowness, and as in a dream the rooms are uniformly darkened and uninhabited. You’ve got to be shitting me, the shooter thinks. He stops booting in doors (which don’t give much anyway, what with the hydraulic safety catches), just cracks them open and peeks inside, standard reconnaissance. On one polished floor, a wide circle like a clock face with twenty-five hours of geometric shapes: triangle, square, repeating red circle. Strung from the drop ceiling, threaded for display on a length of catgut, a population in effigy, watercolor parade of childhood self-imaging: elephantoid faces in pinks or browns, heavy puddles of hair like a crude graphic language, target-range eyes (pupils drowning in irises), and no renderings of any ears, but always the same menacing smile of irregular white teeth. In the ineluctable sweep of his ken, the shooter detects just one locus of actionable movement: a lightweight cage of cloth and mesh aquiver with tortoiseshell butterflies, husks of cocoons still dangling like detonated ordnance from the roof. The shooter considers the tactical pros and cons, but opts to save the ammo, and he positions the contraption on the floor amid the scraps and the drool and the curled catgut, and he raises his heavy combat boot and stomps the fluttery creatures to dust. His progress takes him all the way to the far end of the corridor, where he pauses by the exit doors. In the schoolyard, the playground equipment—monkey bars, funhouse slide, six swings on a steel pole—should be posing, by now, under keening skies, for the still-life documentation that will accompany tomorrow’s hashtags. But the yard seems merely vacant, vacated, unregarded, disused. The ball field grass needs mowing, and farther on, in the street opposite, where abandoned houses belly down against the earth, a lone sedan backs out of a driveway on an errand of an ordinary Tuesday. The shooter taps his rifle muzzle on the door handle.

The shooter heeds the rage welling within him, the shooter teeters, if he’s being honest, on the verge of freaking out, but he practices self-soothing techniques, massaging his testicles with the rifle stock, rocking his hips fore and aft, imaging carnage behind closed eyes. The shooter steadies his nerves, homes in on the pressure lodged in his pooper. The shooter projects an outward calm. This was probably the hard part, the shooter observes, this just keeping your wits about you in the absence of targets. The shooter concentrates on the massive burr in his body cavity, clenches tight, commends his own foresight in his delicate arming for the war. Strange, though, how the rifle’s weight has begun to wear. When the shooter had arrived, parting the school doors with that newfound air of authority and purpose, a monster on a mission, everything had seemed weightless—the rifle, the Kevlar, the boots scarcely touching the ground but falling into lockstep with the strides of his admirable but incompetent predecessors—the pussy in Connecticut, the cartoon-crazy Korean at the college who shot way more footage than liberal-arts majors, of course the Joker and Purdy and the wacko Laughner and the Columbine kids. The only one with a proper sense of style, the only one who understood the true gravity of the shooter’s burden, was that Norwegian ubermensch with his Uzi and his hollowpoints and his fucking nice Scandinavian hairdo and his steely Viking-love-letter aplomb. Course, even he failed to plan tactically for the endgame, to formulate some viable EXIT STRATEGY, and besides, his legacy was irreparably compromised, his shooter’s cred regrettably squandered, subsumed by a petty geopolitical ambition. Because, the shooter thinks, can you really imagine a political solution to all this? (Here, the shooter gestures broadly with his mind, taking in everything from the furred clouds to the tract housing to the mildewed wavelets of the great lake.) But all this notwithstanding, as the shooter, this shooter, had traversed the steps of Gilbert S. Lance Elementary in his remote Wisconsin principality, he had felt buoyed up by the wings of their supermaniac precedent, hoisted aloft by the welcoming embrace of a club in which he sought conscription. And now? Now? Lugging the AK, what with the ammo and the Kevlar and the combat boots and the perspiration slicking his face and the pitons plugging most available orifices, this was starting to feel rather like work—the rifle so much heavier than his Xbox stick with its variable controls and triggers, its wireless capability, its porcelain surety. Compared to that, the AK felt almost neolithic—just the one trigger, a slide tab for the discharge setting and the idiotproof snap-click of clip loading. One day, maybe, advances in technology would be fully commensurate with the shooter’s desires. Until then, one could only admire the purist’s economy in the design.

From this vantage, the shooter can see that his general setup might leave something to be desired, but it wasn’t all that bad. The shooter’s mom, with her permissive nature and indulgent streak and her hereditary love of ordnance, she kept him in pretty good straits, really. Gave him the whole half of the duplex to do with as he pleased. Thoughtful enough never to gift him with a dog to torture, merely encouraged the shooter to bus the leavings of the crows, the squirrels, the odd possum, fugitive skunk, that he eliminated in the fenced-in backyard. Sure, there were occasional unpleasantnesses, like Mom barging in while you had ramrod in hand, speed-reading in Braille (the shooter was bloody well-read), or the time he slid open the pantry door and surprised a clutch of rats on the shelf, fat brown bastards with those sentient needly whiskers and notched hairless tails. One had an eye entirely occluded by a pinkish mass, a floral tumor, and it stabbed its nose high in the air, listening, observational, just as all of them were stilled in their gnawing of the shooter’s saltines, constellation of peppercorn rat eyes measuring him as if HE were the intruder, as if they were peering into a region of nothing in particular, just an outline-in-chalk of the owner/proprietor shooter. And then there was the general aroma of overwarmed humanity wafting from the cushions of the secondhand furniture, the photoelectric seizure hazard in the searing pixels of his aging technotronic arsenal, their much-abused countenances, their aggregate hard miles. Still, the shooter was given the run of the place, with its aromatic, but still decent secondhand furniture, its old-school HP and big-screen Magnovox, rogue pack of cigs he likes to keep on hand, and the sandbags in the basement, a stand of target-practice dummies with humanoid figures scratched in Sharpie on the burlap, now a little overworked maybe in singe marks and skid marks and claw marks and teeth marks, but still humanoid, recognizably humanoid.

When the survivors begin to speculate, this is probably what they’ll do, the shooter thinks. Imagine some terminal falling out with dear-old-mum, some issued ultimatum that required the shooter to desist in one or more of his many entertainments. Or maybe say she threatened to withhold pin money or revoke his gaming privileges (fat chance), or refused to order that fancy new carbine that the shooter had scoped on YouTube (his internet connectivity was optimal, fucking optimal). This explains why he picked today, today, to repay her many services and kindnesses with violence (with violence, they euphemize a volley of point-blank bullets to the victim’s throat and face). Oh, the shooter could laugh to think of the stories these dipshits would assemble on his behalf. But the truth? The truth was almost obscene in its banality, almost beyond imagining. It was MOM who googled the AK and brokered the sale and inked the permits and paid with her charge card and arranged to take possession at the in-town Walmart. It was MOM who shouted for him through the common wall of the duplex to come over and behold the wonder of a civilization in which it was possible to manufacture and google and purchase on credit said WOMD. She was bracing her fat haunches against the sofa, the box with its jaw cracked open, spilling hazard tags and black-sponge packing foam on the floor between her legs. She just hefted the thing in both hands like an offering for the gods, like a newborn child, didn’t raise the barrel yet to peer through the sight, didn’t massage the trigger with her bony hag’s finger. No, she was coolly murmuring her praise with a matter-of-fact pride of ownership, with her matronly pragmatism: “This is the weapon of a patriot, hon’.” This much pierced the shooter’s awareness, but it was hard to concentrate in the face of so much carefully honed steel, such incalculable killing power, the rifling of the barrel a dreamy and mesmeric recession to the silence at the origins of being. The shooter’s mom vocalized her joy with a measured and seemly decorum, with an undertone of civic responsibility, but the shooter had been moved to a region beyond words, a primary zone of pure sensation, nerves firing all along his private inseams, a manic sizzling combustion like July 4 sparklers. The shooter was simply beside himself with unmitigated rapture.

That isn’t to say that there hadn’t been precipitating events, that there hadn’t been tipping points. This morning, for example, when he’d switched on the Xbox, the power button failed to glow with its molten kryptonite green, but burned again the searing red of error and terror, a malfunction known to gamers as the Red Ring of Death. The shooter felt the rage, naturally, recognized with mounting fury sensations in the neighborhood of impotence, but he didn’t attribute some mystical importance to the console’s crapping out. This had happened before; the box might recover, give it time to cool off, though the shooter had really had about enough of such inconveniences. The prospect of the day fanned out as an expanse of emptiness, a plane of time wasted, idle perusing of the web’s nastier backalleys and red-light districts, maybe kill an hour cat-and-mousing on Craigslist. Anyway, the shooter had tossed his head in disgust, cast an eye over the room and its limited delights, and thought simply, No. No more. And then the shooter assembled his arsenal, the shooter mutely sheathed his skull, the shooter bedecked himself in the trappings of death.

But the impetus, the liberating event, if the shooter is being honest, should really be pinpointed earlier. How long? A week? A month? Who’s counting? He had been marathoning Gears of War—showboating with the chainsaw—and of course the batts in his stick died on him just when things were getting hot, so he popped them in the charger, then kicked in Mom’s back door to see if she had any in stock. He was rooting through the junk drawer—Duracells, jackpot!—when he saw it, wedged in underneath all that debris, the rubber bands and glue sticks, the cough drops and playing cards, the address books with their pristine rule-lined pages, midden pile of hole punch, stapler, circle compass, all the hillocks and depressions of the jumbled matter modeling in negative space the burial mound of a long-lost claw hammer: it was just a black bandana, tattooed in white with a floral Arabian design (a bit fruity maybe but the pattern was sufficiently abstract to look badass and dudely). Mom must have got it from the fabric store, once upon a time. Must have wedged the useless thing in here. What in the hell? he had thought. He pulled the thing clear of the junk, slammed the drawer to. He was heeding an instinct now, channeling a wordless directive.

You see, hats were no good. They never fit right on his lopsided head. Berets, Kangols, too natty, ball caps too far out of character, and besides, the whole kit called way too much attention to the ears, left to swing in the breeze, exposed and tender like dewlaps. Couldn’t get away with tucking those disasters in, sort of pinning them up with the infrastructure of the hat. A little too conspicuous, even by his standards. For a while, he made a go of it anyway, tried sporting one with an abrasive insignia, just the lippy catchphrase You talkin’ to me? in a juicily hostile font, but it made him feel ridiculous, even at the GameStop, because you couldn’t wear a hat like that while drawing on a slushee and trying to haggle for a used copy of Return to Castle Wolfenstein, what with both meat flanges fanned out and sagging, dilapidated structures of chewed bubble gum. So he had more or less given up on the whole head-coverage initiative.

Because even with the ears, and the scrawny befreckled frame, the droopy eyes and rutted spine, the off-kilter hips, to say nothing of the genitals, what the shooter really couldn’t live with was the hair. The hair was a no-win situation. It was Mom’s hair, of course, except on her, she could gather it into a presentable rat’s nest, a heap on top and swept back unremarkably at the sides. All of this well within standard parameters of decency. On the shooter, no such luck. It flopped there on his head like a pile of frazzled weeds, each strand thorny and bedraggled and bedeviled and weighted with a molecular sadness. The shooter had tried, logged hours in front of the bathroom mirror, staring himself cross-eyed, gasping with tears (if the shooter is being honest), wielding comb and hair paste like butcher’s tongs, testing every conceivable arrangement. No go. A few years back, the shooter had gone ahead and shaved the whole skull, shaved it clean, wagering that a skinhead look might suit him, but no. He had contemplated his bald skull with a lunatic joy, a joy ripe with inconsolable grief: he looked like a plucked chicken, a scrawny hairless runt unfit for human consumption. And that was enough of that. So the thing was to keep busy, maniacally busy, game until your eyes bled, try not to think about the great OUT THERE, the whole world of other people and their god-given happiness, all their laughter and procreation and prim unremarkable ears and totally acceptable hair styles. There was a certain beauty in the Xbox’s contours, the fetish of the stick in his grip. The milky green of the power buttons now backlit the world of his more pleasureable dreams, which always had the feel of a panoptic FPS. Stable supply of Velveeta in the fridge, monster mash of porn on the web (his connectivity was optimal, fucking optimal). A guy could make his stand here, maybe survive thirty or forty years until the tumor grows too large to be extracted, and after that, who could say?

So yes, if the shooter is being honest, the hair deeply troubled him. He might have borne up under everything else, but the hair fucking grieved him. He wore it now in his customary fashion, splayed out from the forehead like a moldering cabbage leaf, parted in the middle like rotted thatch. It had grown long now, untended, and still he could never get that piece over there to lie flat, and this section over here to cooperate with that bit over there, and his skull lay exposed unevenly, a leprous and barnacled waste of pale skin. So be it.

And then he had found the bandana. He wasn’t consciously recalling what he had seen on the web in the course of googling, as was his habit, the more unusual suicides (YouTube was basically god, the shooter had concluded), but he must have taken note when he saw the photo of that poncy writer who had the world by the ass, who had his lippy wisdom foisted on the unsuspecting registrants of game-scripting classes but still elected to string himself from the rafters in his garage. What is the world coming to anyway? the shooter sometimes wondered. The shooter had perused the YouTube footage of the poncy writer at the lectern, working his jaws on some dunce’s errand, then toggled to the garish mugshot on his Wikipedia page, the head sheathed cleanly in a carnival tent of a do-rag. Tie-dyed, it was. Like a clown’s handkerchief. The shooter must have taken note.

So when he discovered Mom’s fabric-store bandana, he must have known that there were options. It took him a while to decrypt the problem of folding and knotting the thing properly, but even in his first abortive attempts, he knew he’d struck gold. He felt newly forged. And it was really then, in front of the mirror, both ears pinned tight to the skull, all the traitorous forward follicles shrinkwrapped in funereal black, it was then that he saw that he was the shooter. It was a moment of recognition, a negative epiphany.

*

 The window in the cafeteria affords a view of the rear parking lot and the auxiliary playground, used only by special dispensation, where the shooter had been effectively coldcocked by a dodgeball, once upon a time. The lot brims with the usual cars in the stalls, the ass-end of Mom’s battered Civic, but in the cafeteria itself, the shooter had surprised only the lone cook arrived early for her shift, with her jowly face and crinkled hairnet, apron pin-striped prison grey. There had been a brief farce of an over-the-counter interrogation, what with the shooter being half-deaf for all intents and purposes, but despite the novel surety of his words (courtesy of the AK muzzle), the woman was unresponsive. Where the fuck is everybody? the shooter wanted to know, training the muzzle on her cook’s forehead, sighting that void in the face between the eyes, and the woman just locked up, listed from the force of the tremor, the biomechanical undulations, the jerk and the slide of her fear. This wasn’t going anywhere, the shooter had thought, so he tried another tack: Do you still make those little pizzas—those rectangle slabs with the crumbled sausage that come in those little aluminum boats? The shooter spoke the words, but he wasn’t really asking this. The shooter was just communing with himself, surfing his own consciousness, because whomever he was addressing was only the most proximal manifestation of the nullity, just a two-dimensional pane of light colored like a fogged-up mirror, a silhouette in quicksilver, chalk outline done in frosted glass swimming with the oil-slick colors of the shooter’s own image, the spin-cycle of his reflection deconstructed and atilt like the aurora borealis.

Let’s just say the shooter had a lot on his mind as he was putting down the lunch lady. The shooter was doing a lot of processing, and this work occupied him all those moments as he lowered himself gingerly, caught his breath on a bench seat by the panel windows, gazed flat-faced into the residential spaces beyond the back lot, searching out the path through the cornfield of his memory. And this state of preoccupation lingered as he got to his feet and shambled into the corridor and breached the bathroom where the bullies routinely booted in the door, already chanting Swir-lee, Swir-lee, and summarily upended the adolescent shooter, and—never mind his thrashing, his wailing—dipped his shooter’s head into the nearest available toilet, scouring the bowl with his radiation-sickness hair until they tired of the torture and someone smartly pressed the lever and sent the water streaming down, cascading, dragging with it the seaweed coil of the shooter’s mortified follicles. And when the whole crew swept out with their bullying laughter and the bathroom had been vacuumed clean of their existence, the shooter had stood and confronted his drowned rat visage in the mirror, the sopping ears, the hair that could never be righted, and he just thought pleasenonononononono, one sustained sob like a language beyond words, a language beyond language and more in the ballpark of a death rattle. The same mirror in which the shooter now beheld his assembled image, his grim reaper righteousness, and he set the AK on the sink, checked the stays on the bandana, pulled it snug, smoothed the assassin’s brows. Is that a zit? The shooter inspects the lesion in the archway of his nostril. Tests. Sniffs. Touches a greasy finger to the surface of the mirror. Resumes the work of processing the resemblance.

Because naturally he could see it, the resemblance, the bullet-absorbent jowls, double-barreled nosecone of the chest, rat’s-nest hair molded in the cabling of the cook’s hairnet, the stupid sideward drawl of the mouth in the death grimace. In the aftermath, people were probably going to make too much of the resemblance, the shooter reckoned, say that Mom was the skeleton key, the anchor foot of the compass tracing the event radius, the weeping singularity. The shooter grants a certain warrant for this misconception. Only yesterday, after all, Mom had barged in on the butt-naked shooter as he was speed-reading in Braille, kamikaze-style, whooping and hopping in his usual antic ecstasy among the much-abused sofa cushions, porn blazing from the dilated muzzle of his quaking Magnovox. The shooter had felt the flashboil, the murderous hair-trigger rage rioting in that first instant of self-coitus interruptus. But the truth was that this had happened so many times now that Mom hardly made a big deal out of it—no mouth agape in horror, no shrieks of dismay, no revulsion of the abject—now, when she toddled through the door, trying to share with the shooter some recent grocery haul or to inform the shooter of some tasty munitions sale, and surprised the shooter in the frenzy of his self-pleasuring, she just rolled her mother’s eyes and muttered oh jesuschrist sheldon and toddled back out again in quiet egress. No, there wasn’t some pustulating psychosexual fury at work here. The shooter really had nothing against Mom in particular.

The truth, much simpler, really, was just that the shooter wasn’t entirely conscious of other people until he felt pregnant with the rage. From the shooter’s vantage, other people went about the business of living encrusted in this body armor of light, a pane of bulletproof glass fitted over their silhouettes, a virtual scrim antecedent to the actual body, as if they weren’t quite real, insubstantial as ghosts. It was the mirror image, the inverse reflection of the REFUSAL TO COUNTENANCE that typified the public’s collective response to him the shooter. If the shooter strode through life cloaked in the hurt locker of his sexual invisibility, well, there was bound to be some blowback, and the shooter for as long as he could remember perceived other people not as they were commonly portrayed (discrete loci of alien anatomies and consciousness, with the potential for mutually beneficial alliances and contacts), but through the scrim of the nullity, a sociopathic cataract, this morphologically humanoid blind spot. So if the shooter failed to anticipate Mom’s comings and goings, it wasn’t that he WANTED to be caught with his pants down or anything, he didn’t CRAVE some acknowledgement of his so-called erotic identity, it was just that he tended to disremember the existence of other people until he was cornered, provoked.

Bottom line is, the shooter didn’t have any special vendetta against Mom. The shooting was nothing personal. That Mom was victim zero, that the massacre centered on the outpost of her job, that two of the other victims closely approximated Mom’s roly-poly physique and sizeable cleavage: call this just the hazard of living in proximity to the shooter, chalk up the rest to serendipity. The shooter strenuously objects to, and in fact finds offensive, the hypothesis that jealousy had lit the powderkeg, that he resented the affection that Mom broadcast freely to the schoolkids as she toddled through the parking lot and paused to confer, folded arms and flapping wattles, with the special-needs teacher in the shade of the school’s pillared awning. The shooter knew that she viewed them with different eyes than the ones that viewed him the shooter. Case in point: at the range last week—just their usual spot in the woods off the highway, a non-sanctioned dry salvage of abandoned appliances and dumped tires and derelict trees bedecked with bullseyes—as he broke in the AK, the shooter had caught Mom scoping him with an expression of evident DISTASTE, observing him as if she DISAPPROVED of the shooter’s joy, his crazed glee, as he wielded the rifle, torched targets. Then again, the shooter had scoped Mom’s crookeye not long after he had, just messing around, leveled the rifle muzzle in question at Mom’s fat head and sang out in his shooter’s reedy alto, Say cheeese…. Mom hadn’t seen the humor. In any event, if the shooter is being honest, if Mom had factored at all into the shooter’s plans, it was simply because she was the only one who could be relied upon to TAKE IT. The shooter had sailed into the elementary school and shot Mom point-blank in the face for the simple reason that she was the only human being alive, anywhere, ever, who would assent to all this, assent to the shooting, assent in an existential sense to him the shooter.

*

To reach the art rooms at Lance, you had to follow the long corridor with the wide-screen windows around the auditorium—it might have been a risky crossing if anyone were paying attention, but the circle drive, the street beyond, are still empty, the neighborhood trees stirring drably in the breeze beneath those clouds, knotted in welts, curdled and heaving… are they tufted, even teated, bulging with these polyps like egg-crate packing foam? Must be massed low mammatus, ripe with storm. The shooter elects to forego a belly-crawl and instead improvises a duck-walk in his Kevlar, so his thighs burn radioactive as he traverses the exposed passage. When he rounds the corner for the art rooms, their vast warehouse spaces, lofty studios, toddler ateliers, he discovers that all the doors are locked, bald-faced and pallid from disuse, holding under heavy guard those flimsy memories in which the shooter had submitted to have his face covered with Vaseline and then soggy plaster of paris, an exercise in mask-making adapted from some African tribal ritual. When the masks had set and the kids were directed to paint them howsoever they pleased, the shooter had dutifully heeded the instructions, and he plied the paints with his geometrical intelligence, assembling piecemeal the countenance, dread and fierce, furrowed and fanged, bright potent stars streaming from the eyes. Of course, the kids teased him mercilessly because one of the Rohrshack blobs looked, they said, like a fat cock angling straight at his mouth hole, and the shooter had sat there with his crazy hair still pushed up from the recent physical persecution and blubbered with rage. But when the shooter had calmed down, when he could think clearly, he saw that the bullies were wrong, flat wrong. They couldn’t grasp the truth of what he’d made, and the shooter contemplated his handiwork and felt a preternatural chill descend, a blissed-out cool, as he fondled the rasping contours of the death mask.

Does it bother the shooter to be traipsing in this fashion through the bad dream of his memories, surprising himself, as it were, with every footstep? No, it doesn’t bother the shooter at all. This protracted self-communion, this was inevitable. This is what happens when you at last discover your true identity, find the place where you belong.

The shooter recalls hearing something about the abrupt foreclosure of the arts instruction at the school, maybe Mom or maybe the tv, but he knows there is no hurry now, that he has discovered some citadel at the end of time, a postapocalyptic world without zombies or vampires or feral bad guys, but just the cinderblocks and tile of an elementary school, once his own. He ascends the wide central stairwell, makes a sweep of all the rooms on the upper floor, likewise abandoned, Roanoke Island of the mind, clouded test tubes and dud bunsens in the lab rooms, scroll maps of the world drawn like mortuary shades over blank brown chalkboards, faded Tetris grid of a periodic table at which the shooter lobs a boulder of phlegm, library locked tight and windows boarded against the rapture, everything immune to weapons fire. When he reaches the office again, he sees that the kid’s body appears to have moved a fraction, slipped a scoash in the coordinates of spacetime. This particular face-down, floor-eating posture, so final, so FORLORN, doesn’t jibe with the shooter’s recollection, and the blood pool looks altered, its planar integrity disturbed, as if a comet had traversed the nebula, streaming. Seems to have stalled out now. Maybe the shooter should just call it a day, maybe head home like nothing had happened, rig up some Velveeta on toast and see if he could contain the auxiliary arson event and get the Xbox back online. Well, maybe he should…. The shooter cradles the weapon, reaches to his head, checks the stays on the bandana, roots in the abject of his ears, pops one plug, then the other. The seashell whooshing in his head goes silent, in rush the sounds of the world in which nothing stirred, this grisly standstill of elementary education. In his palm, the plugs, bright orange, industrial, some space-age rubber soft and pliable, look like bullets with fan tails, miniature bombs. The shooter sniffs them, salty, tart, tang of ear canal.

Then he hears the hollow staccato waffling, some voice yammering at a distance, slight reverb. It reminds him of the sound of the radio from the other room as he whirled about the kitchen rigging up some Velveeta on toast, fuel for the gaming marathon, and Rush Limbaugh worked the airwaves of his enclave, bitching about somebody or something, giving someone the BUSINESS. The shooter rarely heeded the particulars of Rush’s tirades—the shooter really didn’t care one way or the other, you know—but he liked Rush’s spirit, found in Rush something apposite, a companionable hostility, a slinger of rich horseshit. So sometimes he would tune in to Rush’s program and let him yammer in the background as the shooter wasted Krauts, then zombies, then aliens, then lycanthropes, and scarfed Velveeta on toast, because how many times can you listen to the same cybervillain gaming soundtrack without losing your mind? But the shooter wasn’t religious or anything on this point. Sometimes he would just mute the Magnovox, fire up some Lemmy Kilmister or Megadeath or Iron Maiden or that theater-nerd Rob Zombie. By such means the shooter attended to his sense of duty, like he had to cultivate over time the righteous badass mojo, even though he was WAY happier after the hours of training, with Mom out of earshot, when he could just crank up some Foreigner or some Styx and rock out through the bloody maze of pixels. The shooter wasn’t bent or anything, not some wimp erotically deranged, though when your sole sexual experience consisted of a school janitor hosing you down on a rooftop and the classiest thing in your browser cache was a German scheise video, you probably had some explaining to do. In any case, the sound is like that, that distant unintelligible echoing, Morse code of syllables striking the air.

Gym.

The Lance gym has four functional points of egress, hulking pairs of sound-shielding panel doors with a push-bar and an opposable stop on each interior face. On the outer façade, just a curved steel grip like a silver parenthesis magnetically affixed to the bulwark, battleship-gray. The shooter might have improvised, with a simple piece of fabric, say, some kind of catch, binding the two handles together, to prevent the opening-outward that would allow a good percentage of his victims to escape. But time is a factor, the shooter knows, as the voice continues booming for a few beats longer, then pauses, as if to ride out the crossfire, and quickly the shooter cottons the drift of the convocation. Distinctly, he hears the voice, female, insist that some bad things were just accidents, that the loss of those precious members of our SCHOOL COMMUNITY had been just such an accident, a tragic accident. The shooter ponders, Did one of the little fuckers off himself? Some recent plane crash maybe?, a burst of the glee washing over the algorithms of his shooter’s calculations, but it doesn’t add up, something definitely twitchy, and anyway it doesn’t alter one jot the purpose building then to a lethal hollowpoint terminus, because the shooter responded to words just as he responded to bodies, consigning all of them to the zone of the nullity. The shooter, game on, just tamps down the glee, dips the plugs one after the other in his pursed lips, grimly reinstalls them, thinking only Aim, don’t spray. Aim, don’t spray.

*

Through the prison-panel window, a narrow slat of glass reinforced with a mesh of chicken wire, a rectangular spyhole, the shooter has a limited view of the grief assembly, the fluorescents high in the ceiling irradiating the polished floorboards of the basketball court, soaking everything in a honeyed orangeade light, but the bleachers, he can see, are brimming at max occupancy, kids folded like SS lightning bolts of knees and torsos and cheap big-box sneakers, gazing solemnly in the direction of center court, attending to local distractions. How many? Three hundred? Five? The shooter feels butterflies tickle his stomach, rattle in his ammo pouch bulging with clips and their fifteen hundred rounds, give or take. There was something definitely twitchy about all of this. A decade of gaming—expert gaming—had conditioned the shooter to expect an escalating series of attacks, an increasing number and capacity of hostiles—this, as carefully scripted as a Hollywood movie, as scrupulously followed as a stone-tablet law. But after the initial jolt of adrenalin, the peerless execution of Room 2, there had been only the shooter and his loneliness and his gnawing self-loathing returning to surprise him even now in his Kevlar and commando boots, his ammo pouch bulging like a vinyl IED, his head coolly sheathed in his assassin’s black bandana. The shooter hadn’t anticipated the possibility of this asequential JACKPOT-WITHOUT-PRECEDENT, but gaming expertise enables him to improvise. When the shooter pulls open the door, he dips the AK to navigate the aperture, forestalling the clumsy bang that might stir too soon too much unrest. The kids in this corner of the bleachers, as if hanging in the air above him, note his entrance, and they must figure that the patently armed and armored shooter belongs to some special security force at the school, an avenger who would appear only when the kids were confronted with death, because, to a body, they don’t panic. They just watch him as he advances, minor bustle of dark hair and coppery skin tones, paying homage to the ordnance: one girl confronts him with an ancient Mayan face imperturbable as the moon. Has the shooter strolled into a nest of minorities? Maybe Rush had a point about that immigration business. This used to be a good school, the shooter thinks.

At this range, the shooter can’t miss, but the shooter is, if anything, overbold, and he knows that he has to gain a vantage point from which he can maximize the body count, let there be no premature annihilation, so the shooter still isn’t firing even as he rounds the front of the bleachers and everyone in the room can see him, now, stalking across the hardwood like a cat stalking a yard bird across the surface of Mars. Through the murk of the orangeade light, the stilled air of bated breath, the shooter tacks directly for the officiants, five adult anatomies in business casual get-ups, beflanking a retro cabinet podium and the steel bulb of its microphone. At either end of the gym, the backboards are raised, retracted against the ceiling, and their suspension has all the permanence of a burial.

Maybe it’s the jaundiced light, or maybe recognition drains the blood from the faces of the officiants, ambassadors of the living, must be the principal, the vice principal, the counselor, the grief expert and the victim’s mom for whom it is no longer too soon to talk about her loss. The dumpy woman in the dress pants is mouthing words at the shooter, approaching him, APPROACHING HIM, with both hands raised, palms outward. The shooter can see the shaded creases in the skin, like a monkey’s palms, but mottled, curdled, and his head is fizzing with PopRocks of euphoria. He feels touched, smitten, almost brought to his knees by a kind of awed gratitude, a kind of pageant-beauty’s triumphant disbelief, her dazed incredulity, clapping both hands to her face, for me? all this for ME? The shooter, still stepping forward, closing the distance between him and his victim, locates in the crude language of words something adequate to his breathless amazement, Are you fucking shitting me? I mean…all of these fucking people and they’re all fucking UNARMED?! The shooter comes to a halt, waits a beat, recovers his cool, steels over, thinks just Hakunamatata. And then the shooter opens fire.

The first sweep of the AK takes out all five targets and most of the lectern though the microphone still juts from its mount. The shooter wheels and turns the gun on the bleachers, the top rows of which are streaming with the anatomies of the larger kids, the upper grades with their superior hitpoints and body mass. Through the plugs, now that the AK has ceased for the moment roiling, the shooter can discern the outlines of amusement-park screams, the sound of communal shrieking as the roller coaster barrels over a towering cliff. The sound approximates that mad joy as the bodies spill out over the far sides of the bleachers, jumping ship, running for lives. Better start there, the shooter thinks, training the AK muzzle on the top tiers, and almost instantly the shooter does enough damage to more or less cease the outflow of bodies over the edge. The shooter sees the scene as a tableau, the kids and all of their well-formed ears and well-groomed hairstyles stilled in this conga line of terror, yammering, faces streaming in a language like words, bodies scrambling for occasion to flee, save for the dead spot just off-center where some lummox in a Halo t-shirt, gotta be the biggest kid in school—watermelon head, weirdly pinched face scabbed with acne, pompadour shelf of acceptable red hair—just holds his ground, swatting at the rain of ammo with great bear paws until the hands, then the lummox disappear in a lurid splash of pixels. The shooter puts most of them down—snap, click, snap, click, bionic gamer’s trigger finger working the bolt, AK butt jackrabbit-humping his shoulder, flap of the ammo pouch costing him precious seconds, a real fucking nuisance, actually, but so be it— though in both margins of his peripheral vision he notes the panel doors parting in regular spasms of egress. On the bleachers the bodies fall each according to his own, some instantly ceding animation and dropping in a heap, others, merely winged, executing graceful rubber-limbed pirouettes, still others succumbing upright to full-body conniptions as if they’re being electrocuted on the way down, and all this leaving those nimble few who duck and cover, cower in bunkers behind the bench seats until eventually they panic and make a dash for the hereafter. It reminds the shooter of nothing so much as the view of his crown, in the bathroom mirror, when he angled the clippers at the offending follicles and raked across, and over, and sideways, and again, and the hairs fell en masse, wilting and feathering, cascading in clumps and isolate strands, ringing the drain until it was basically occluded like a grave.

The adults in the mix, the teachers and staff and pervert custodians, the in-loco-parentis bodies, make a mess of things, just dive in front of the shooter’s sight lines, absorbing the bullets immediately preceding the bullets that strike the kids. He sees one woman in a corduroy skirt, way younger than Mom, somersault over the bleachers’ edge, where she remains, crouched and hyperventilating, the shooter knows, like a rat in the pantry. In the lower tiers, courtside, where the youngest kids congregate, the terror has bottle-necked and the kids STAY WHERE THEY ARE, frozen in the floodlight of the shooter’s chthonic glory, quivering, waffling with a grief indistinguishable from horror. No one said it was gonna be easy, the shooter thinks, this doling out of death even on the wholesale, and empties a few more clips as if composing himself to deliver the most important address of their lives. Please listen carefully, the shooter thinks. Do I have your attention now? Can you see me now? Snap, click. The shooter feels buzzed, light-headed, flickering at incalculable frames per second. And though he unleashes reams of bullets into the faces of the children shimmering in the candied light, the shooter can’t help but feel a little discombobulated because he spies, always in the periphery, the lone body of the brown-haired kid, with the perfect ears and unblinking eyes, staring him down, immobile, stalwart, uncowed. Or again, the same stone-faced stare, but a little higher in the bleachers and to the left, now a grim and knowing little girl, in a star-bedazzled hoodie, hair bundled like USB cable against her shoulders, solemn and round-eyed as an owl. Or again, the broad-faced fat Mexican kid in the SuperMario t-shirt, gazing at the shooter as if he were gazing into a vast nullity. And whenever the shooter pivots to mow down the offending visage, no living thing stirs in his sight; the sweep of his omnicidal ken discovers only the tumbled array of bodies, blood-drenched and smoking, sprawling anyhow piles, like a snapshot of a mass grave on the internet. It was a little disconcerting. The shooter was clearly having problems with his apprehension. But becoming the shooter probably had its costs—this fracture in the consciousness, call it the price of doing business.

*

In the days to follow, while the shooter is holed up in his mountain redoubt, relishing his new gaming console and phat recliner, gold bricks of Velveeta lining the fridge—that is, after the shooter shoots his way through the piddly SWAT team that this city could muster, a foe unbecoming, really, almost a waste—the populace will speculate about the state of the shooter’s emotions at this moment, as he contemplates the mass grave of the bleachers, alone, the gym evidently quiet now, the last whimpers and sobs, the gurgles and death groans, evaporating like smoke, converting to memory. They will attribute to the shooter the satiation of a maniacal bloodlust, which is not entirely inaccurate, the shooter allows. They will invest the shooter’s psyche with the devil’s own glee. Touché. But they will underestimate the shooter’s meticulous planning, his architectural genius, because the shooter knows a thing or two about bitchin’ game design. Back in the days when the shooter still made plans for a future (a future other than the future of his post-shooting mountain redoubt), the shooter’s mom had sprung for the tuition at the local college with the iffy admissions standards where the shooter purposed to master the cheatcodes and hashbangs of programming language, that he might blaze a trail up the career ladder of XXX Software Company, Gaming Division, and expose that guy who developed Donkey Kong as the poncy dipshit that he was. The shooter had contemplated the menu of courses, and the shooter had figured that, in addition to the foreign-language class in computing sciences, he might as well take the creative writing course, though if the shooter is being honest, he was really more in the market for a course along the lines of, say, DESTRUCTIVE GAMING. But, antonyms being what they are, in the absence of options, the shooter had figured that he might log some target practice at the keyboard, try out some new premises for games, hatch the baddest of all badass badguys.

The shooter had been progressing adequately, though he hadn’t quite expected that the programming would be so BORING, so, you know, LABOR-INTENSIVE, that there were so many baby steps and first principles to cotton prior to the actual orchestration of a murderous virtual reality. The shooter had made it maybe a few chapters, or maybe a few pages anyway, into the computing sciences textbook before he just cashed in, called it a day, and assumed the role of the silent smartass in the back of the cheaply appointed classroom because maybe he could absorb the basics without really too much wasted energy. This glitch in the plan was unexpected, but the shooter had thought to compensate by making a more or less serious go of it in the NOT-DESTRUCTIVE-GAMING class. Naturally he ignored the assigned works of the poncy writers, among whom figured THE poncy writer on the verge of his surprisingly unimaginative suicide, from whose example the class was to attain a vantage from which to assimilate the VERY DRY art of narration, but when the shooter was directed to script his own work of NOT-DESTRUCTIVE-GAMING, he had endeavored to make a proper go of it, and there were times, whole stretches of minutes if not hours, in which he DID NOT GAME but instead punched words with his idiot fingers on the keyboard of his old-school HP.

It was a strange process because the shooter had begun with the best intentions, planning something of no more than four thousand words in which, say, Call of Duty met Zombie Apocalypse met Chicks Dig Guns—the futuristic neon-Nazis were ZOMBIES! and their bitches were BABES!—but quickly he found himself diverted. The problem was the words. They threw, like, a wrench in the engine works of the nascent virtual world, perpetrated this liquid-crystal spoon-bending malfeasance on the shooter’s laser-scope FPS wetdreams. They were basically seething with electromagnetic forces of their own, mercurial algorithms warping light around the center of the dark mass, and they interfered with and disrupted the unfolding war saga amid which the shooter recognized, through a thin veneer of gamescript clichés, the people, his familiars; the places, his haunts—his cast of characters more or less straight-up decoctions of his mom and her no-account brother and the girl at the Target and the superior type at the Game Stop, and the guy who stalked him once in traffic, and the freakshow anatomies of the dungeon-diaper mamas on the Internet, and the stray hazy figure, leached of physiognomy, of his father who had strolled out of the shooter’s life and into the early grave of a salvage yard in Butte. And the script kept lurching and convulsing into hilariously unsavory predicaments involving a lot of allusions to and one protracted sequence of what might be called nonconsensual anal intercourse, a tactical assault with blowtorch and baton on the supervillain’s sphincter, said supervillain being just a flimsy straw-man of a stepfather figure, all bulbous forehead and the devil’s own puppy-dog eyes with no clear correspondent in the shooter’s biography. The shooter discovered that he used a great number of exclamation points in his most decent sentences. Well, the shooter had typed the thing up, each word glinting and turned to purpose like a newly forged round, and printed it out, each page unspooling like an assembly-line WOMD, like thin-slicing Semtex, and the shooter’s psyche hummed at an exceptionally high flicker rate, burned with a chthonic exhilaration vastly superior to the chthonic exhilaration consequent upon the wasting of seminude flesheaters, and the shooter had passed the thing in with the firm conviction that even the old hag of a teacher would have to recognize the shooter’s non-shooting prowess. But when she had returned the script—which, the shooter allowed, read more like a sitcom sketch, a birth-defective play with maybe an excess of shouting, than an epic game saga—the pages, unlike his classmates’, were immaculately empty, as if the whole thing were consigned to a plane of nonexistence, a kind of REFUSAL TO COUNTENANCE, the sinister shimmering zone of the nullity, leaving the shooter with just the louring gaze of the old hag of a teacher who seemed to have pierced through to the sweat-smelling inseams of his maniac soul and tipped all that she beheld straight into the trashbin of oblivion. That was more or less what had happened, though if the shooter is being technical, there had been four actual words on the final page of the shooter’s manuscript, just an interrogative in the broad, looping hand of calligraphic logomancy, Can I help you?, which amounted to essentially the same thing as the REFUSAL TO COUNTENANCE. After that point, the shooter’s attendance didn’t so much taper off as collapse entirely, until now he remembered the campus as just another site in need of a good hosing down with, say, three to seven thousand rounds of high-caliber ordnance.

And that would have been that, just another abortive episode in the shooter’s pre-spree incarnation, another enervating memory with which to pass the days in his predestined role of CONSUMER/USER-GAMER until the tumor really took root and ballooned, but then all that time later—how long? months? years? the calendar is pretty flexible if you spend most of your days in the suspended animation of a virtual reality—the shooter had recognized the name of the poncy writer attached to the clown-cool bandana-d visage, and he had diverted the pure intent of his sadomasochistic googling in order to view the poncy writer’s Wikipedia page wherein the shooter cottoned the essence of his aesthetic. That’s what it’s called. To wit: amid all the blah, and he blahed, and then blahblahbadiblahblah, the poncy writer’s shining insight, his fucking insuperable metaphysic posited a theory of universal SYNECDOCHE, something to the effect that the least part of our experience is the all of what we are. That every possession, every stray thought and drive-by experience, every appurtenance and concomitant, each one of these was itself synonymous with the whole of one’s identity, a precise mathematical expression of the perceiving human consciousness. A world super-saturated with life’s essence, hyperspatial and ramifying, in which artifacts and entities, animate and inanimate, people and places and things and airy notions, all of this sort of adheres to us, and there’s this mutual infusion of energy such that the one gifts us with the other, object-subject, and vice versa. All in the end is really one.

This discovery had put a significant twist in the shooter’s noodle. The shooter wasn’t dumb. He could catch the upshot here. Instead of a radically compartmentalized world of alien and THEREFORE innocent things, everything was connected, or infected with everything else. And simply to be alive, you had to assent to all of that which was not, but would inevitably become, you—every light ray and sine wave that boogied through your consciousness, to all of this you had to assent. Either that, or clock out, call it a day, start rigging up the noose. Because if you reject one jot, refuse one iota of your experience, you might as well be practicing the intricate and sorely underrated art of self-annihilation. Well of all goddamn things, the shooter had thought, summoning in a single totality every instant of snubbing, of scorn, if not of outright bullying and abuse that he had experienced over the course of his life, and he felt the colossal NAY in all of it, the fundamental withholding of assent. Assent for him. For him, the shooter. And the shooter had taken in all of this with the pitiless gaze of his consciousness, and he felt the full measure of the INJUSTICE of it, the violation of basic MORTAL DECENCIES. And he muttered it low, muttered it and repeated it, slanting the syllables with a slur that softened the semiautomatic fire of his vocal chords: Nonononononono.

You might say that the shooter had learned the hard way the elementary principles of game-scripting, because every artificial prod had come to nothing. In the end there was only experience, and so the apoplectic plotline in the grade school, while in some ways a bit of a hatchet job, a catch-as-catch-can rampage, it still tried to conform to that standard premise of escalating mayhem. Because all of these little incapable-of-resisting bodies, all of those precious rounds spent in the mass grave of the grief assembly, this was for the news reports, this, all this, was for the sake of an indelible communal scarring, a barbed dildo wedged straight up the ass of the collective memory. But for the shooter the massacre in the gym was merely foreplay, preamble to the second phase of this meticulously orchestrated rampage. The real test, and with it, the greater measure of the joy, was coming, the shooter thinks, rounding the corner of the bleachers and turning his pitiless FPS gaze on the crouching body of the teacher, a squat composition of Oxford and corduroy, strappy shoes that bare the splayed bones of the instructional feet. She’s still got her cellphone to the ear, she’s intoning syllables into the device, eyes harrowed, squinting, leaking tears. She appears to be uninjured, save for the mussed hair and hurt feelings. 911, the shooter knows, and that was in the plan too, leave at least one with a set of working fingers to get the po-po out here on the job. Check and check, the shooter thinks. He turns his pitiless gaze to the vast spaces of the gym, the cellblock locker rooms where the kids were made to shower TOGETHER. I mean, are you shitting me? the shooter sniffs. What the fuck were they thinking, herding all those naked kids TOGETHER into tiled cellblocks, training the water on them and ruining their hairdos, all in the name of an illusory cleanliness—because who thought to use soap?—all this under the watchful eye of the pervy gym teacher who must have been in cahoots with the janitor, who must have publicized the particulars of the shooter’s, well, irregular juvenile cock, probably conspicuous to connoisseurs even when concealed behind his cupped shooter’s hands.

Wait. That’s not quite accurate, the shooter does the math, self-corrects. This must have been when the building still housed his, the shooter’s, middle school, before the burgeoning juvenile mortality rates and subsequent redistricting led the elementary schools to merge and decamp from their former locations and take up unified residence here, now the Gilbert S. Lance Elementary School. These dead kids here, they probably weren’t made to shower together in those locker rooms there. Oh, the machinations of a small town could be surprisingly complicated. It was much harder, the shooter allows, to work all of this out while nursing a pretty serious problem with one’s apprehension. Because the shooter peers now into the skeletal gridwork of the underside of the bleachers, and he sees them there like imperturbable rats ambushed in the pantry, the somber bodies of children, flat-faced and immobile, amid the blood puddles and drizzle waterproof and inviolable, contemplating the shooter as if measuring a vast nullity. The rage spikes, and the shooter sprays bullets into the shaded cavity where sparks fly like fireworks from the spokes of the bleachers, but the kids just evaporate into nothing.

At his boottips, the Oxford and corduroy have gone into convulsions, and the shooter, still pensive, abstracted, bends his gaze to consult the streaming visage of the victim. Removes one, then the other plug. Cups them in the hand that levels the rifle barrel.

What do you think, sister? Do you assent to all of this? The shooter hears himself channeling the droog squad from A Clockwork Orange, detects in his shooter’s English the British inflection absorbed from the Cockney precincts of his impressive media empire, though the shooter regretfully acknowledges that, below the theater, his shooter’s voice still sounds like his everyday voice, mealy-mouthed, nasally, taint of a lisp. The truth is that the shooter tenders the question uncertain of his own intent: is he negotiating in good faith a life-or-death contract, or is he just offering her access to a website of dubious provenance and questionable taste? Take a GOOD LOOK. Take it ALL IN. And do you ASSENT? The shooter gestures with the AK, leans in harder on the words, but still isn’t really sure if he’s offering her a deal, if he’s offering to spare her, leave one alive to tell the tale and all that. He’s just channeling the directive, and she’s blubbering, sputtering and mooing in sheer terror, and the shooter feels the rage ebbing aimless until he realizes that she’s breaking up in laughter, struggling, failing to suppress the wave of it. She’s spitting laughter all over the shooter’s boss commando boots that had arrived in the mail just last week, that were nearly fucking brand-new, she’s doubled over and guffawing now into the gleaming butterscotch woodwork of the gym floor, and of course, then the shooter steadies the AK over her brainstem and opens fire. The sound explodes, cracking open fresh nodes of space in his sinus cavities, reverb booming in his ears. Dayum, the shooter thinks. Execution style, hair and skull just chewed to rags. Gore now on his pants and boots. The shooter slurps the plugs, reinstalls them. This is just getting started.

*

The shooter looses a dispirited sigh, the controlled exhale of a guy very much on the clock, then breaches the gym doors and marches along the corridor, expecting a dull round of finishing work, some standard mopping up of the would-be hostages, but the shooter finds the hall, the cafeteria, the distant exit doors, simulacrum of a playground beyond, all of it immaculately empty, with no memory or record of even the shooter’s own passage, the whole place silent and still as a ghost town, so when the shooter again makes a pass by the front office, he isn’t too disconcerted to find that the little girl’s body has vanished, the bulk of his mom lying there alone, in death as she was in life, just occupying real estate on the surface of the earth, birthing defective children. The shooter doesn’t have occasion to locate and euthanize the absent body because he can see it now, the first cruiser speeding into view. ‘Bout fuckin’ time, the shooter thinks, expecting the next act to follow the script, the cruisers to arrive one after the other and position themselves in a defensive row, tightly circled wagons, from which vantage the beefy and undereducated dimwits will shield themselves behind the bullet-retardant wings of cruiser doors, one fat guy on his belly steadying a never-before-fired rifle on a tripod, the whole scene gripped with inertia, the sheer boredom of a lazy, lackadaisical standoff. But the cruiser swings to in a lunatic motion, a vector that bespeaks squealing tires, strained suspension, engine chuffing in fury. The cruiser bumps over the curb and patch of lawn fronting the school, bounds up onto the WALKWAY in front of the building and then the trooper is out with his pistol drawn—a thick black Beretta with, what, maybe NINE rounds?–and striding toward the doors like the very hand of God, the righteous soldier about his work, about to kick some serious ass. It’s like the guy has accessed some ultimate cheatcode that makes him invulnerable and deathless and he motors on thick polyester legs, heeding the lash of his own dread directive.

Not awaiting backup, the shooter recognizes, a little dazed by such a breach of protocol, this departure from the script, and hamstrung besides by the plugs so that he realizes a beat too late that the trooper—muttonchop face, brown mustache, large flared nose, hair well-oiled and swept over from the side—has already opened fire. The first bullet clips the shooter on the exposed collarbone, and the shooter feels the lightning bolts of splintering, hears the round fucking RICOCHET—phee-eew!—amplified under the lid of the plugs, but the impact is glancing so the shooter can still blink and get his bearings as he teeters, think to raise the AK and spray the air with thirty windmilling rounds that make a disaster of the drop ceiling and swiss cheese of the trooper’s undefended chest, shower of blood spritzed across the shedding insulation. The trooper’s body lies in a supine heap, but the arm still moves, fumbles, trains the weapon without the aid of eyes in the vicinity of the shooter who is still digging in his ammo pouch, and the bullet strikes with a wallop of blunt-force trauma against the Kevlar, knocking the shooter decisively onto his tightly clenched keister.

The bullet had struck at the ribcage under the arm, the pain is deafening in its magnitude and insistence. The shooter can’t draw a breath, he’s gasping and acking and bleeding from the collarbone wound, and it takes a few more moments before he can scream his imprecatory rage, heaping ignominy on the head of the now-for-sure dead fucking trooper, and then the shooter recognizes the calming scent of brimstone, the whiff of powderburn and death, and he knows that he’s breathing again, still here, still alright. He curls up against the cinderblock in the corridor, huddles unto himself, licking wounds, still gasping and wincing. The shooter knew there would be risks, after all. He takes a minute, hunkered in a ball against the cinderblock, body spasming as it accommodates the novelty of pain. Fingers with the far hand the impact crater in the Kevlar. The shooter thinks now that maybe it wasn’t so smart after all, not such a boss idea to sneak that lone AK bullet and slide it greased up the pooper, because you never know when you might get separated from your ammo pouch (still fucking here, asshole). No, maybe that was a little excessive, because the shooter is straining now to retain control and then all at once he concedes, assents, unclenches his scrawny asscheeks and there it goes, with an explosive belch the shooter empties his spastic bowels, a sharp buckshot spatter of colorectal expectoration, probably induced by the GSW, in his immaculate shooter’s underwear. The shame, the humiliation, evolves almost immediately into a grim relief, a cheery aw-shucks WILLINGNESS TO COUNTENANCE. That really was a lot better. It feels liberating to sit here like this, on the deck of this mausoleum, this fucking institutional crypt, leaking blood from the collarbone, blinking away stars, the warm texture of human feces—not a full load, but not negligible either—in a shooter’s underwear, the secret hardware of the AK bullet still gleaming, abiding, palpable like a nut in the peanut butter. There was something almost endearing about it, familiar. Like home. And then the smell cuts through the brimstone, and the scent of his own rich humanity offends the shooter’s nostrils and he resolves to raise himself so as to sight, over the ledge of the window, the cruisers sweeping in, the breadtruck with its SWAT team, already in armor and helmets, already packing, and the troopers rooting in trunk compartments for shotguns, one guy kitted out in some kind of spacesuit studded with grenades, maybe Bomb Squad, and all of them moving, fucking trotting from the street, up the drive, toward the door.

OK, then.

By sheer force of will, the shooter bites down on the pain and gets a move on. He’s shambling through the corridors, hears the muted tinkling of the windows exploding into fireworks behind him. I’d say these guys seem motivated, the shooter thinks, no time to long nostalgically for the lazy and inconclusive standoff that might have occupied his afternoon. The shooter hustles past the cafeteria which appears as orderly and unvisited as a photograph of a cafeteria on the internet, and follows the forward passage around the gymnasium at which the shooter hesitates to take a peek, because what if the crypt was immaculately empty, unshot-up and idling away an ordinary non-shooting-event Sunday? But no, he sneaks a look through the spyhole as he passes, and there it is, the wreckage at center court, the jumbled holocaust carnage of the bleachers. The shooter quickens his pace, pain dulling into regions of the nearly tolerable, almost handleable, and on the far side of the gym, just before the glass of another escape hatch beyond which he sights more troopers deploying, he parts the door to the boiler room where the janitor had led him lo those many years ago, and the shooter regards the furnace apparatus, machine-age hulk of nickel and brass, like an industrial oven, the plate-welded kiln of a child-eating ogre, but smaller now, more decrepit than menacing, hardly scary at all. The shooter scents the sooty air, familiar and pacifying, all around him the cotton batting of memory, and he follows again the path to the wrought-iron stairwell pinned to the wall, leading to the ceiling and the door carved into it, and he hugs his pain tightly to himself and kicks the door open and strides out into the leprous daylight, the low-ceiling lobed clouds still spongy and cinerary and efflorescing with moisture to piss in the shooter’s Cheerios and spill on his spree.

The rooftop has weathered over the years, everything a little drabber, blurred, faded, but is otherwise much the same, its crunch of gravel and tar, ratty upturned edges of the tarpaper, HVAC doodads populating the vicinity. For the record, the shooter thinks, dropping an eye to measure the bloodflow in the margins of the Kevlar (maybe slowing, negligible), it was over there, behind that aluminum box vent with its ceaseless whirring, where the janitor had treed him. No big deal, the shooter reflects. It’s not like the moment defined him or anything. It wasn’t like there was actual penetration or anything, and in that sense, the whole episode was only an experiment in the legitimacy of the virtual, a toxic dose of elementary education. Gray hair oiled back, face a mask of oversized glasses and pathetic whimpering desire, the janitor had just drawn him in with those sympathetic assurances, those soft-lipped promises that there was an end to the abuse and savage loneliness of the schoolrooms, and then the janitor had hauled out his, the shooter’s, irregular cock, which was just as it had always been, from birth, sort of studded with cartilage all along the barrel, burred and bethorned at the pallid muzzle. Kind of like a miniature gourd, a bewarted kumquat. Kind of like a stumpy sea urchin, like the business-end of a medieval mace. There were specialty dildos in the porn industry, these thick sheaths of heavy-duty latex, shaped in exactly this fashion. The shooter had done enough googling subsequently to determine that his cock was barbed like the cocks of the great cats. In the long run, the shooter had thought this a definite boon, this possession of a tiger’s cock, this wielding of a carnivore’s studded wang. He never much credited Mom’s disclosure, of the time that she had left him, hardly more than a toddler, alone for a few minutes to change the laundry and returned to discover that he, the shooter, had wrenched open the junk drawer and extracted the claw hammer and shed his drawers and gone to work flattening the slender length of his curled toddler’s wang. The calcium deposits, or the mutant cartilage burrs, call them painful souvenirs, Mom had said, and though the shooter failed to credit the report that would clear Mom’s conscience for birthing this defective piece of merchandise, he sometimes had misgivings, little flashbacks of aborted memories in which Mom’s curling iron atop the toilet tank and the scent of scalded flesh figured largely. Anyway, the shooter thought it exalting in a way, this tiger’s nubbled wang, an anatomical conferral on him, the shooter, of the status of a demigod or scourge or something, and the janitor had just given his pecker a good going-over, and then he’d told the partly denuded shooter, very politely, to turn around, and he introduced the shooter to what could be called not exactly consensual anal outercourse. That is, the janitor had attempted to mount the shooter and access the shooter’s rearward orifice, but the rearward orifice had marshaled its meager resources and effectively repelled the forces of invasion. The experience was not unlike attempting to plug a USB cable into a dataport upside down. There might or might not have been diarrheic weeping. Anyway, the shooter scarcely gave it a second thought these days, and when he did give it a moment’s thought, he just conceded that it was part of the mosaic of his reality, the past was the past, warts and all. The shooter doesn’t feel supercharged with rage or anything, now that he’s wandering the terrain of his troubled memories, reinhabiting the landscape of his shitty past. He just feels, if he’s being honest, a little overworked, feels as if he’s laboring, and he pauses a moment, tries to double over to get his breath, quell the pain from his wounds, and then he makes his way to the iron ladder bolted to the brickwork, leading to the uppermost roof, a proper bird’s nest.

The shooter grits his teeth and gains altitude, but he keeps low as he shuffles across the gravel and takes up a forward position by the ledge. The shooter readies the AK, but all he can see are the stalled cruisers in the street, freshly waxed and gleaming in the dingy light, the bread truck of the SWAT team crisply painted, properly emblazoned, but the whole scene abandoned, no houses across the way empty to supply spectators or supererogous victims on the sidewalks. No passing cars slow to permit a few sniper clicks at the windows. The street holds its breath and lours with an air of gravity, and the shooter feels the officers streaming through the facility, without a thought for the lives of the nonexistent hostages, making an inventory of the shooter’s handiwork, seeking out the shooter’s hideout with the grim and implacable urgency of an avatar on a cheatcode bender. The shooter considers, crawls toward a bulky HVAC port, takes up a siege position under cover, bellies down, grinds Kevlar into gravel, levels the muzzle of the AK at the access ladder that communicates with his position.

The shooter allows that some troubleshooting might be in order, because he hadn’t exactly prepared for this scenario. The shooter had anticipated a, you know, leisurely standoff in which he could amaze his adversaries with his shooter’s prowess, pick off at a sporting rate the best among them, leave them to contemplate a future bereft of such exemplars, a future that must accommodate the girth and heft of the shooter’s will. The shooter had expected merely to hole up for a while on the rooftop and dole out death on a retail basis until he got bored and decided to target the weak link in the wagon chain, probably in the back parking lot, where the female troopers would be stationed, and blast his way through the defenses, and from there, it was just a brisk jog to the waiting bicycle and the short ride home to reclaim the gear he’d left in the yard (and thus spared from the auxiliary arson event), and then the vast frontiers of the future, his eventual forest redoubt, or mountain redoubt, from which he might devise fresh slaughters for those days when his Xbox was on the fritz. But this blatant disregard for FPS engagement protocol, this murderous HASTE, this would need some rethinking.

The shooter rummages in his ammo pouch, does the math by hand, chews his lip, trembling. Should be plenty, the shooter thinks, still more than three hundred rounds, plus the one in his drawers, if it comes to that. Had he really spent so much ammo in the gym? Wasteful, probably, the shooter thinks. Wasteful. Supposes he could have prevented those 911 calls, just decided to pack it in after the massacre, gone back to the office to root around for Mom’s car keys so he didn’t have to pedal that damn bike through the ghost-town neighborhoods with the AK draped idiotically across his saddle, maybe just save himself for another day when he might have more energy and those cops might respond with conduct more becoming. I mean, the shooter thinks, these fucking people have families, don’t they? The shooter checks the fit of his assassin’s bandana which had ridden up rather high on the shooter’s forehead, exposing who knows what catastrophe of acne and sprawling follicles, but the ear flaps are still pinned to his scalp, the rearward knot still secure. The shooter thinks it would be nice if there were a serviceable mirror on hand, but the HVAC stump here is nonreflective, slatted like shark gills or stadium bleachers, and when the shooter stares into the sheen of the AK, he discerns only the greasy smear of his silhouette, the slide lever on the stock deadending at the locus of the amputated third discharge setting, factory disabled. Safety, Semiauto, Safety, Semiauto, …. Wait. That would mean…. His bionic gamer’s trigger finger does feel a tad raw. Might have overdone things with the gun oil, after all, the shooter thinks, but never mind. He levels his gaze on the regions of the access ladder, at this point ready for grappling hooks to claw for a hold up here on the topdeck of the world, this rotten principality in the wilds of Wisconsin, and only then does the shooter adjust the dial of his apprehension, attune it to the sound.

Checks the AK, as if it’s malfunctioning or just buzzing with the memories of recent hard use. Nothing but the secret silent language of ordnance, mute and immutable as death.

Scans the perimeter. Gull’s-eye view of gravel rooftop expanse, treetops and housetops, blue porcelain water tower bestriding the powerlines, a principality that has laid down weapons in surrender.

The sound, those steady rapid-fire gutturations of hell’s own fury, intensifies, noise still without origin as if emanating from another virtual dimension, until the shooter thinks to cock an eye skyward, half-expecting to see a valkyrie with an Uzi rappelling from the clouds, and sure enough, there it is, the whirling thunder of propellers, not a proper marine’s Black Hawk, lean and lethal and studded with ordnance, but a cherry-red airbus of a Flight4Life helicopter, probably called in from Racine to scoop up the sharpshooters on the roof of the hospital and then tearass over here to draw a bead on the shooter’s position. I mean, Christ! the shooter thinks, the hospital was just across town, bike-able in maybe twenty minutes. But AIR SUPPORT? A little egregious, if you ask the shooter.

Amateurs.

The shooter hasn’t anticipated this, but he surmises that the chopper might have limited value as a tactical asset, maybe just there to obtain some aerial reconnaissance, keep a lookout for the shooter’s eventual run-for-it. Call it a precautionary measure, even if it is embarrassingly homemade, improvised, not quite consistent with an adversary of the shooter’s mettle. The shooter tracks the fat behemoth’s inching progress through the horizon frame, considers an air-evac scenario, maybe an errand of mercy for one of the victims, until he sees the thing shift its ungainly bulk on the air, pivot on its landing skis with conscious intent. The floating circus banks laterally and picks up steam, and in a nightmare eyeblink—as if acres of sky have warped and folded and catapulted the rig on a hyperspatial seawave, as if the same fucking cheatcode has been accessed and the tilt of the earth itself bends to purpose to accommodate this maneuver contrary to all physical laws of particles and pixels—the chopper doesn’t so much cover intervening space as phase-shift between categories, from remote-controllable life-at-a-distance to UP-CLOSE-AND-PERSONAL DEATH. And in this awkward attack posture, a little askew, off-kilter, at odds with the plane of reality, the booming lummox bears down on the shooter’s position. As if on cue, the sharpshooters appear from the bomb bay doors in the rig’s belly, and they hug the sides, lean out, level and sight weapons—automatics, the shooter deduces as they lay down strafing fire: ribbons of bullets chew up the gravel, ravage the tarpaper, gotta be hollowpoints streaming toward, overshooting the shooter’s position, and it’s then that the searing pain in his legs detonates, a cellophane veneer is peeled back from the shooter’s consciousness, and the grey sky glows three shades brighter as the shooter allows that he’s been hit.

Imprecations occupy the next few moments of the shooter’s lifescript, and then the pain steadies and gathers, nerve endings ablaze, sizzling spikes of blinding combustion like the phosphorus and magnesium of July 4 sparklers, and the shooter flops over on his soiled rear, the prod of the bullet almost below the threshold of awareness now, and from this hardwon vantage point, the shooter tallies the damage. Not one, but both legs shorn clean just under the knee—rather more under the knee on one than the other—the shooter’s black assassin’s jeans, bullet-chewed, fraying perforations already drenched in and draining the shooter’s life’s essence, terminate in a flaccid expanse where the shins and feet have been dislodged. Well, shiiiit, the shooter thinks. The severed limbs lie inert on the gravel, steel-toes pointed wrong way ‘round, clearly at odds with the shooter’s presently seated anatomy. The shooter’s head is swimming now, flares and crossfire singing in his brain, but he draws breath and concentrates, and clutches the AK tighter, and takes a last look, already preparing the eulogy for his one-time legs—the stump edges hewn ragged and spuming blood, their speckle-shreds of black jeans and righteous grave-walking boots—but in the sweep of his faltering ken, he descries instead the lamb’s-leather rise of an SS jackboot and hashbangs of European khaki, on the gravel a trickle-pool of cold fjord-water. The other leg, copper-tinted and hairless, calf tattoo of a dragon-demon and shod in a skate-rat’s sneaker. And the shooter, even under such duress, even while experiencing such severe problems with his apprehension, can recognize the provenance of said appendages. And though the shooter doesn’t exactly have a spare moment to do the math, time balloons outward and sprawls, dilates to accommodate the conclusion, almost wordless, just part of the directive, that the shooter at the instant of his dissolution is discomposing, shedding fragments of himself, the cumulative shrapnel of the biohazardous identity to which he had once assented and laid claim. The shooter feels some ambivalence about this eventuality, this too-late discovery that he could only ever be a composite shooter, a rigged-up concoction culled from the ghastly odds and ends and junk-drawer atrocities of a diseased civilization. I mean, none of it was even fucking ORIGINAL, the shooter concedes. Was this a loss of identity, an annihilation of self, the shooter wonders in this atemporal rooftop zone of gore and pain and whirring chopper blades raining thunder through the useless burrs of the plugs, or was this the proper fucking triumph, the pinnacle of everything, the final level at which point the faithful gamer at last achieves nirvana?

The shooter doesn’t really have occasion to settle the matter because the airbus is bearing down now, ass-end pitched up, dorsal blade churning giddily with the promise, the whisking surety of death. And the shooter can discern almost point-blank the brick face of the pilot, hands at the controls, stern, grim, impassive, as if wheeling suicidal into a vast nullity, and the shooter channels the directive and turns the AK to purpose once more and sprays the entire clip, pain rioting through his body with each rifle spasm, bullets fizzing in the region of the chopper’s windshield which splinters so fast and so totally it’s like a soap bubble bursting as if it had never been, and as a unit, a solitary integer of mortification, the bullets pummel the body of the pilot, which absorbs them with a cool unfussed rocking of the shoulders, with something like aplomb in the steadying embrace of his pilot’s harness. Likely didn’t have time to pull out of the dive anyway, the shooter reflects, words whirling at the speed of chopper blades, the only kamikaze in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and he’s at the wheel of this fucking RESCUE CHOPPER with a conical snub nose like a bomb? There was something almost majestic, a kind of scalding beauty in the extent of the shooter’s rotten luck, and the body of the pilot slumps forward, mouth smeared with a death grin, as if he discovered therein something delightful, some secret abiding joy, some cheatcode euthanizing grief, and through the wind and fury of the whirring blades—cycling so fast that they seem to stand still, pinning the shooter in down-tilted crosshairs, a towering palladium X—the shooter perceives the rippled, unbeseechable silhouettes of the riflemen still leaning from the bomb bay doors like identical twins in identical headgear, but no longer firing. They make no attempt whatsoever to jump clear of the down-barreling whirlybird and pull ripcords or whatnot and, you know, SURVIVE to enjoy the hero’s welcome of this desolate Wisconsin principality, but instead, they still cling fiercely to the sides of the doomed fuselage as if they have hefted in unison the dying rig on their brawny shoulders, as if to hurl the whole apparatus through the last few yards of spacetime and slam it down with EXTREME PREJUDICE directly on top of, and thus squashing flat, the blanched and palsied figure of the shooter. The shooter only has occasion to think that this was probably gonna hurt a little, because with the first slice of the Cuisinart blades the shooter and both of his shooter’s ears and all of his shooter’s pores and longsuffering follicles would be chopped into a puff of assassin confetti, and in the next few microseconds of game time, his remains would grade from a thin human slurry to a fine pink mist like a vapor trail retaining maybe sentience for one last gush of awareness, one final gasp of amazement before it devolved to just a blur of imperceptible motes, each no bigger than a pixel, until the whole stain blew away into nothing, wiped clean from the frame—just like the concomitant explosion would surely void most of the school, with all of his shooter’s handiwork and low-def biography, from the plane of the earth, strike it from the archeological record of memory, leaving only the ass-end of the helicopter to protrude from the wreckage, plumes of black smoke streaming skyward to etch upon the clouds the shooter’s last will and testament—furred cataract of an impact crater, fingerprint fissure on the firmament, skid mark on the underwear of being, alchemical symbol of the nullity—and let that be the final lesion, the thorny crown, his shallow grave.

—Bruce Stone

 

Bruce Stone is a Wisconsin native and graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA, 2002). In 2004, he served as the contributing editor for The Art of Desire (Oberon Press). His essays have appeared in MirandaNabokov StudiesReview of Contemporary Fiction and Salon.  His fiction has appeared most recently in Straylight and Numéro Cinq. You can hear him talk about fiction writing at Straylight Magazine. He’s currently teaching writing at UCLA.

 

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