The story so far:
“The children? Well, they’re all in class, Mrs. B. Did you call in sick?” Pete gave a gleaming smile filled with silver and yellow teeth. A sneer stood behind this grin of congeniality.
“Don’t be stupid, Pete, it’s Saturday! What room are they in?” I asked, shaking the gun. I kept my voice just below a scream, and routed my anger and fear through my eyes. I stared into his, drilling my hate deep into his skull, but he didn’t seem to notice. And if he did, he was especially good at playing dumb.
Looking behind him at the schoolhouse door and then at his watch, he said nonchalantly, “Oh, well, I really don’t know where they are then, Mrs. B.”
This was ridiculous!
“See this gun?” I was screaming now. “I’m going to pull the trigger in five seconds, if you don’t move aside and tell us where you’ve put the kids! You **** understand?”
The old man paused, seemingly pondering his situation, glancing down at the concrete floor, at the gun, at Robert behind me, and finally back at me. He pulled his right hand out of his jacket pocket. ****, I hadn’t even noticed he had reached in. He must have walked out with his hand already in.
“See this?” he said, revealing a small black cylinder with an orange tip that his thumb was pressed upon. “The second I release this button, a small explosion will go off somewhere in the building. A small explosion that will take someone’s life. You understand this?”
I nodded. I suddenly realized I did not have the upper hand, gun or no gun. If I shot him, he would release the button. If I didn’t shoot him, he would eventually be able to continue with his plan, whatever that may be, and letting go of the cylinder was probably part of it.
“Pete, can’t...can’t we talk about this! That's a person’s life you have in your hands! You can’t just throw it away!” I was beginning to panic, the gun getting heavier and heavier in my grip as I tried to weigh possibilities and probabilities, actions and repercussions, emotions and duties. My mouth felt dry, and I just wanted to cry. To go home with Robert and cuddle, talk, love. I didn’t want to be here at all, to have such a burden on my shoulders. I knew, though, that the lives of many were at stake, and I could never live with the knowledge that I didn’t try to save them.
Pulling myself together, I began slowly advancing across the landing towards Pete, not sure what else to do. Pete was a vast ocean between me and my goal, and in my hands were only rocks, rocks that would only help me sink if I tried to get across. I had no other tool that would help me past this obstacle.
“You realize that if you let go of that button, I’ll blow your damn brains out, right?”
Pete just gave a slight smirk, helping calm my spirits by a factor of none. I was in the dark, having no idea if his stunt was a bluff, if we were being watched, if the children were even in the building, or where they might be if they weren’t. What was his plan, and where was he going with it? Would they let me or Robert live if we got caught? All these thoughts raced through my head, a tornado of useless scenarios.
I motioned with my free hand to Robert.
“You need to go inside and find the children. I’ll keep this piece of **** from doing anything brutal.” I never took my eyes off of Pete.
“What should I do when I find them?” Robert asked cautiously, realizing the enemy was definitely in earshot.
“Uh...damn.” I didn’t have a clue what to do if we found them. From what it sounded like, Pete had the place rigged to blow. We were no demolition team, no bomb squad. Of course, I had been given the basics of bomb disarmament, but the time I would have to take to dismantle an explosive, especially when I wasn’t sure what I was doing, would allow the FBI enough time to get there.
“Here, Robert. You take the gun and I’ll go in.” Making sure that there was a finger on the trigger at all times, I handed the gun to Robert, never opening a chance for Pete to make a move or escape. I pulled on the wooden handle and swung the oak door outward, letting the darkness spill into my eyes. Without looking back, I said “If he moves, shoot him.” Then I closed the door and was alone in the dark, facing a lone hall ending in a square of light.
I had checked the entire bottom floor and found nothing. Not a soul, not a shred of evidence that there had been anyone there in the last 24 hours. When a door was locked, I put my forehead to the glass and peered inside. Empty desks and chairs all remained unattended.
As I sprinted from door to door, the linoleum floor squeaked under foot and invented suspicions that I was being followed. Constantly, I whirled around in fear of being under gunpoint to find only the hum of a drinking fountain or the blink of a fire alarm. My heart pounded in my chest and my ears kept the beat with their throbbing.
In this manner I had reached the end of the hallway, where I stopped. The double doors with their small glass windows let in a pale yellow light that reflected off the floor and reverberated down the corridor, illuminating childish drawings of trees and birds, stick figures with wands, and little square houses. For a second, I was left in awe. Such silence in such a dire situation seemed too contradictory, yet I felt like I could curl up in a ball and go to sleep, forever forgetting that there were so many children under death’s gaze.
“Mother ****!” The scream came distant, almost metallic, as it echoed down the hallway. A shot fired, and a wail of pain was raised. What the hell? And then, because evil has no mercy, a small explosion went off underneath me, and the ground trembled slightly.
I threw up.
Without hesitation, I jumped over the pool of liquid now on the floor and flew down the passageway, the gold light on the walls melting and swirling as I neared the darker entrance where I had left Robert. I pushed open the door to find Pete on the ground, his body almost cut in two at stomach, laying in a pool of blood that continued to flow down the steps to the sidewalk. He face was a grimace of pain, but he did not seem to be in pain anymore, for no screams or cries issued from his mouth. I suddenly realized he was already dead.
My attention followed his long arm, flung above his head, to his finger tips, and then to the little black cylinder a few inches from his thumb, the button now expanded out to it’s original position. For the love of God, how could this happen! I was moving too slow. There were children in need somewhere behind me, but I couldn’t force my gaze away from that little orange button. Such a small button for such an extreme tragedy!
"Maribel! Help me, Maribel!” I knew his voice, I knew who it was, and my stomach flew into my mouth. Propped up against the other door, around the corner of where I was kneeling, came Robert's voice, much weaker then usual and breaking from a whisper to a growl.
"Oh God! Oh God, what happened! What the hell happened Robert?” I broke down and tears streamed down my face as I tried to open the second door and pulled Robert inside. A bloody pool had also collected underneath him, dripping from a wound in his right shoulder. It looked as if the bullet had gone all the way through. Before he could answer, I had closed the doors to the light again and, taking a drape from one of the windows, began bandaging his wound. For a few minutes, I forgot all about the children.
“What happened? Did Pete try to run?”
He muttered in an almost inaudible murmur. “I’m not sure, but I think we got sniped. I think....I don’t know who it was!” and here he gave a deathly cough, and my throat tightened at the sound of it, my blood already racing. “I think they wanted to kill me. The did it....in..intentionally! They wanted us both dead!” His voice trailed off, and I asked no more questions, as hard as it was. I ran to the secretary’s desk, which was on the far right wall buried in the shadows, and found the phone. No dial tone. That son of a bitch!
I then reached into my pocket and pulled out my cell phone. The screen was black. Apparently, Pete had remotely activated the chemical release in my phone that destroyed the circuit board and yielded the phone inoperable. It was supposed to destroy all evidence of recent calls in case of an emergency, but now it had just destroyed any hope of medical attention.
Realizing I could do nothing more for Robert, already having stopped his bleeding, I turned my attention to my original objective.
“I’ve got to find those children!” I yelled, and the memory of the small explosion below me set a pang of regret off in my chest. I already had failed one person.
Not knowing what else to do, I reluctantly left Robert to himself, telling the both of us that he would hold on, and opened the door to the outside. I quickly found the gun I had given Robert, and dodged back inside before I too became the target of a sniper.
Because the explosion had gone off below me, I presumed the rest of the children were in the basement, too. I was running out of time, the FBI probably already on their way, and I knew this could be my last chance to save them.
I took the stairs that were behind the first door on the left. Fortunately, this door was never locked. At the bottom was another unlocked door. As I twisting the handle, I immediately heard voices coming from somewhere in the darkness. Thank God!
The basement was originally built in the early ‘60’s as a bomb shelter, an extensive underground system that many didn’t even know existed until ten years ago. It had recently been outfitted with a few appliances and gas heaters, and was designated as a new storage area in order to make more room above. A clutter of boxes, books, and pipes crisscrossed and blocked many of the paths that wove throughout the clutter. An ideal spot to hide over a hundred young children.
I switched on a light switch located to the right of the door. A shriek of fear met my ears, sounding much farther away then was practically possible because of the many objects in the room.
“Everyone, it’s all right!” I yelled as I jostled my way through the clutter. “You’re safe now! I’m not going to hurt you!” They were too terrified to cheer, too frightened to understand their nightmare was almost over. Coming around the corner of an abnormally tall stack of printers, I came upon a pitiful sight. The children, sitting and laying on the floor, were sobbing and stunned. Only a few were gagged, whether because Pete had ran out of rags or had made examples out of the noisy ones I knew not. I untied them as fast as I could, each of their hands being tied to a long wire cord which snaked throughout the group.
I recognized so many faces, so many lovely faces. How could someone, a fellow human being, be so cruel. I would never understand it.
Soon, I came to Jake. “Thank God you’re safe!” I said to him, holding his head to my chest and giving him a long hug. He returned the gesture, and then looked up with sad eyes.
“What are we going to do, Mrs. B?” he asked.
“I don’t know...I don’t know. Once I untie you all we’ll get out of here, but after that...I’m sure it we’ll be ok.” I moved onto the next child, with all greater speed.
Untying over 100 ropes was taking too much time. When I finally finished I knew we had no more to waste.
“Run up the stairs! Go to the main entrance, and find Robert!” A few asked who Robert was, but I did not reply. I had spotted in the corner a small closet with concrete walls that held all the janitor’s equipment. The door, usually locked and closed, was now blown open and lay on the ground, black and burnt. Inside, debris lay everywhere. A sob escaped my lips, and I looked away quickly. pushing the image out of my mind. I knew what had happened there, but wished I could forget it forever. Finally, I dislodged my feet from the ground, and raced up the stairs.
“Hand over the children please!” The mechanical voice penetrated all the walls and shuttered windows, and it took me a few seconds to realize it was someone outside with a megaphone. So the FBI had finally arrived. It looked as if it was all over. “Please open the doors, and send the children out! You will not be harmed!”
Surrounded around Robert, who still lay on the floor, stood the children, terrified blank stares all looking at me. Everything stood still, no one sure what to do. They all knew, every single one, that we had lost our last battle. Another order to release the children swirled around the room, and almost hypnotically I glided towards the door. I laid my hand on the doorknob, and twisted.
Boom! A large explosion detonated to my immediate left, generating howls of pain and anger, muffled by the school walls so that I could not make out the words. I stood stalk still, not sure what to do; waiting to see what would come of this new development.
A few pistol shots resounded next, followed by a moment of silence. Behind me, the shock of the new sounds passed, and everyone save Robert began to panic, running for cover behind the secretaries desk.
“Stay calm, everyone! We’ll be all right! Someone’s coming to save us, it sounds like!” The Society has come!
What I assumed was a grenade erupted in front of the school, shattering and spewing glass from a window across the floor. More screams and howls. A machine gun fired. An M16. More and more shots pierced the air, distributed all around us. A full-blown fire fight had erupted, with explosions, shots, and screams. The children’s crying only added to the mayhem.
“Maribel, we need to get out of here! Right now!” Robert shouted behind me.
With my mind already beginning to think the same thing, I did not argue. Getting the children to run down the hallway was difficult because of their panicked state, but soon we were all making our way as fast as we could toward the golden square of light.
At the door, I looked out one of the frosted pains, seeing dozens of black sedans, scattered bodies laying at their wheels, while a few men with automatic rifles fired over the hoods at targets out of my view. Suddenly, with a whoosh of air, one of the cars burst into flame, thrusting the car itself and the body of a man flying into the air. Holy ****, how are we going to get out of here!
“We’re going to have to run for it! There's no other way. It’s stay and die, or run. Just get to the trees and you’ll be fine!” I didn’t feel confident as I spoke, but I knew it was our only option.
“Maribel,” Robert said. “They will all be shooting at us. Someone would have saved us by now if that’s what their intention was. We should assume they are our enemies until we know different!”
Shouts came from behind us, and I looked back to see two men from the FBI running in our direction.
“Stop!” they yelled. I didn’t obey.
Shoving the doors open, I ran into the air, praying others would follow. As a mob of people, running as fast as we could, we ran in the direction of the woods. The bullets flew. My arms pumped. My legs sprinted. Everything went quiet. Shots blared past my body as I ran. In my eyes, I saw only one tree. Only one goal. Shot after shot rang out behind me, yet I knew of nothing else in the world but that lone pillar of safety. And I ran.
I stared entranced at the white wall, not because it was interesting, but because I had no where else to stare. Everywhere else I looked, I saw something that I knew others would never get to see. A bird, a tree, a cloud. So many children would never get to experience these natural wonders.
"Maribel, there was nothing we could do!” Robert’s voice of reason trickled into my conscious, snapping me out of my trance.
“But I was the one who ran! I led them to their deaths! Can you even comprehend what that’s like, Robert? No, you don’t have a damn clue!” I was on the verge of crying.
“Maribel, but you saved so many. None of them would be here if it wasn’t for you. Who knows what the FBI’s Black Ops were going to do. You know as well as I do that we didn’t really have a choice when they came behind us. We had to run!”
It didn’t matter. A week had passed since I had led 117 children across the parking lot. A week since the bastards shot down 19 of them. A week since we arrived at the highway out of breath and terrified, afraid to ask where the others were; had they stayed in the schoolhouse, or were they shot down? And in this week, I had done nothing but run over and over again what had happened, searching for a mistake I had made, something I could blame it all on. Yet nothing was there.
“Robert, I need to know, was that the Society or not? Why did they shoot at us as we ran? Why would they murder us! Did they think we were the FBI?”
He took a deep breath, leaning back farther in the deep armchair he now sat in. “They weren’t the Society. When I contacted Hiram last to tell him I was quiting, and to figure out how to get the children back to their families, he said he didn’t know either. Whoever the sniper and those who intercepted the FBI were, they had their own agenda. But with the children safe now, I don’t think you need to worry about it, Maribel. You did your part.”
“Yes, but who are they? The sniper, for instance! Who was he! Why was he? What is their goal? What are they trying to accomplish!”
Robert gave a light chuckle, this time leaning forward. “Maribel, for God’s sake, calm down.”
I was starting to get annoyed with his lazy attitude. Thought I hadn’t know any of the children who had not made it across, their deaths were no laughing matter. Their funerals had been the most painful experiences of my life.
“I just want answers Robert! I want to know why all these things have happened to me.”
“You don’t need an answer for every question. I have hundreds of questions running in my head. Why did I do the research I did? Why did I recreate Danya? Why did I lie to you, leave you? Why have so many things gone wrong in my life? None of these have answers that I can find. And so I except them, and they slowly fade away. They may forever stay unknown, but I have no intention of finding their answers. Since there is nothing you can do about the past, I suggest you do the same. It will save you much pain.”
I knew he was right. I would probably never know who it was that had killed Pete, or for what reason. I would never know why the mysterious organization wanted the children dead, though I guessed for the same reason as the FBI. I would never know why a higher power had chosen me to live the life i live, or why the children had to die.
Jake, Amy, and many others had lived. But there were 19 little kids that I would never get to know. And there was Danya, who I would never get to forget.
Yet, with so many questions that I had no key to solve, I did know one thing. I had done what I had done, and that was all I could do.