Shea could not really concentrate. Her thoughts were drifting a million miles away and then returning to the squirrel outside of her large office window. She watched the cute, little rodent, as it scampered fearlessly through the leaves blanketing the grassy knoll, and she wondered if its life of foraging could have been anymore difficult than her own, particularly these days. Surely, Shea reckoned, the squirrel would have never bothered with the demands of a pesky career, while also trying to be a good mother to two teenage boys. Surely, it would not have known the trials of dealing with an aging parent. And surely, it could never feel the anxiety that followed Bradley’s question. The paramount concern for this animal had to have been the number of nuts it collected in a day, and at this point, Shea wished her life could have been nearly as simple and untroubled.
For a few moments, the squirrel stood motionless, and then it sprinted for the protection of the trees. Shea immediately understood why. Just beyond the knoll, two burly police cars raced down a relatively empty Fourth Avenue, and made the sharp, right turn onto West Abrams Street, where they activated their sirens. That was not an uncommon site for this town, unfortunately – not these days, Shea thought. It seemed that drugs were taking a tremendous toll on this place, and everyday brought with it the tale of a new crime or rumors of another overdose. She had no doubt that, by the time her family sat down for dinner, someone would have filled her in on this latest incident.
Shea turned back to her computer with a sigh. Her discontent for this town and for this job was very evident; she wore it on her face with a frown. If things were different, Shea told herself, she would have left this place. But things were not different. Two socially-active teenagers, alongside a mother suffered from the early stages of dementia, meant relocating was not an option – not for a long time. Everyone would hate her for making such a selfish choice. And then there was Bradley, she remembered. He would sooner suffer death by thousands of paper cuts than leave the town. So, for now, she settled for this life – one where, on any given day, she stared into the same software interface, interacted with the same small-minded folks, put her happiness behind that of others, and cried out, privately, in frustration and without hope.
“I finally have the receipts for two last weeks.” A young woman standing in the doorway to Shea’s small office waved a folder. “Do you want them now, or should I come back with them later?”
Shea sat up in her chair and pushed her hair back behind her ears. “No, no, come in, Ashley,” she insisted with a gesture. Upon accepting the folder from the young woman, Shea began to thumb through its contents. “This can’t be everything, can it?”
“Ted said it was. I mean, I can go back and ask him,” Ashley replied.
Shea never looked up. Her eyes remained fixed on the receipts. “No, it’s fine. I just know that something is missing. Something is always missing.”
“Are you okay, Shea?”
“Yes, I am. Why do you ask?”
“I don’t know. You seem distant – or, um, maybe bothered.”
Finally, Shea looked up, but she did not speak immediately. Instead, she took a deep breath and closed her eyes.
“Oh, no, what’s wrong? Is it Bradley?”
Shea nodded. “Close the door and sit down.” Ashley was happy to oblige. Once the young woman took a seat, Shea unloaded. “Bradley asked me to marry him last night. We were having dinner with the boys – nothing unusual, nothing special – and as I was clearing the table, he got down on one knee, and just asked me, right there, in front of my kids and God.”
“That is so amazing!” Ashley erupted. “What did you say? When are you guys going to set a date? Where’s the ring?”
“I did not know what to say,” Shea admitted, lowering her head. “I did not say ‘yes’.”
“Oh, no? Why not?”
“I don’t know. I sent the boys to their rooms, so Bradley and I could talk. I feel like this is rushed. We have only been together for seven months. I think I need more time. I just don’t know how I feel right now.”
Ashley leaned forward in her seat. “What did he say to that? Are you guys okay?”
“I hope that we are,” Shea said. “He did not stay the night, and he has not answered my text from this morning.”
Just as those words fell from her lips, the smartphone sitting on her desk began to ring. Naturally, Shea retrieved the device, only to realize that the call originated from Ferek Construction, a business belonging to her ex-husband. She was not in the mood for a discussion with him, and so, she declined the call and placed the phone back on her desk. Oddly, though, as soon as Shea’s attention returned to her co-worker, her phone began to ring again.
Annoyed by the notion that her ex-husband was calling so persistently, Shea answered: “Look, Mark, I’m really busy. If you are trying to flake out on another weekend with the boys – don’t do it, because Brad and I have plans, and…”
“Shea, shut the hell up, and listen to me, dammit!” the caller shouted. “You need to meet me at the school! Something’s happened! It’s all over the police scanner! I just left the warehouse, but I will be down there in a few minutes!”
“I… I…” Shea succumbed to a sudden rush of fear.
“Meet me on Duncan Street, okay?” Mark told her. “They aren’t going to be letting anyone close to the campus, but we can meet there.” He paused, only briefly. “Shea, did you hear me?”
“I… Yes, I heard you.” The frightened mother could barely speak.
“Okay, leave now. I will find you on Duncan.” Then Mark abruptly ended the call.
It took a few seconds before Shea lowered the phone from her face. She seemed dazed by the news that she had just received, and by the look of dread in her eyes, she was still processing it all.
“Shea?” Ashley called out to her with concern. “What’s wrong?” There was initially no response. “Shea? What happened?”
Finally, the shocked mother came to. After a nod of here head, she rose from her chair and grabbed her purse. Then she proceeded to the door.
“Shea?” Ashely called out, yet again.
“Something happened at Pruitt. I have to get down there.” Shea did not stop. She simply walked out of the office with increasingly brisk steps.
# # # #
Shea did exactly what Mark had asked of her. She made her way along Duncan Street, and what she found as she got closer to the school was surreal. Seven blocks from the school, the street was filled with cars – many of them abandoned by drivers choosing to walk the rest of the way. Police and EMS vehicles were among the congestion, as their drivers ran into the direction of danger. The sidewalks were filled with confused and distraught people, and Shea recognized only a handful of them as she kept walking. There was a crushing pall in the air. The closer she got the police barricades, which were erected three blocks, downhill, from the campus, the louder and more frenzied the atmosphere seemed. There, mortified parents and other community members sought information from scurrying law-enforcement officers not providing any, at all.
Unable to find her ex-husband in the crowd before her, Shea reached for her phone, and frantically dialed him. There was not answer, and so she tried again. And then she dialed a third time; she was determined to reach him. It was on the third attempt that she heard a phone ringing, as Mark made his way to her from the front of the crowd.
“What’s going on? What’s happened here?” she asked her ex-husband. “Where are the boys?”
“I don’t know. A shooting. They think it may have been multiple shooters.” Mark told her. “I am sure the boys got out. One of the deputies said many of kids were evacuated to St. Mary’s. That makes sense. It’s a block away from the school.”
“I should have never taken Beau’s phone because of those pictures,” Shea said. “How’s he going to call us? How is he going to let us know that they’re okay?”
“Well, I am sure he going to do so pretty soon.” Mark took Shea’s hands into his own. “We will find them and get them home safely, Shea.”
Shea took a moment to look around the crowded street. She noticed that she was not alone in her worry. In fact, some people – men and women, alike – were sobbing and left consoling one another, while others seemed impatient and infuriated, trying to press emergency responders for information. Even her own ex-husband Mark, whose eyes never left her, seemed uncommonly nervous.
With a nod, Mike asked, “Where is Brad?”
Before there was ever an opportunity to answer the question, the sound of a single gunshot rang out in the distance. It came from the direction of the school, and it prompted a hush from the crowd, as everyone turned in its direction. Then came another gunshot. And then there was a third. Much to the horror of the crowd, the shooting coming from the direction of the school did not stop. In fact, it got worse.
“Lord Jesus,” someone in the crowd uttered. Shea could not tell who said it.
Then, for a moment, everything became eerily quiet. No one even seemed to move. When Mark finally looked to Shea, she noticed that the tears streaming down the face and into his short beard of the brawny, thirty-nine-year-old man.
He was going it say something. In fact, Shea was waiting for him to say something, to offer needed reassurance, as he always did. But, when he opened his mouth to speak, another round of gunfire erupted. This time, it was closer, much closer. This time, it was in the crowd, here, along Duncan Street. Now parents and bystanders were targets.
Shea could not believe her eyes. Frozen in fear, she watched helplessly, as people fell to the ground, and as police officers rushed into the scattering crowd. It was chaos. Shea did not know what to do.
“Come on, Shea! Run!” Mark shouted, as he pulled her along. “Run!”
Shea did run, and the two of them sought cover behind an SUV, as bullets tore through its windows and struck down others fleeing. Mark used his body to shield Shea, and he held her tightly for as long as he could.
For Shea, the attack seemed to last for an eternity, but it was, in truth, over in a matter of minutes. The gunfire ended, and in its stead came the moans of the injured, the screams of the traumatized, and the shouts of the responders. Then she noticed blood on her face and shirt. As she moved Mark’s limp body off her own, she found him desperately struggling to breathe.
“Oh my God! Mark, you’ve been shot!” Shea shouted, as she investigated the wound to his left side. “You’re going to be okay! Hold on for me, Mark! Hold on!” Distraught but no less determined, Shea frantically climbed to her feet. “Somebody, help us, please! Somebody, please help! He’s been shot! Please help us!”
Her plea was heard. Almost instantly, a group of people ran to their aid from all direction, and they descended on Mark.
One of the women in the group tried to console Shea, but the caring mother of two was completely overwhelmed and now too despondent to reply to any question about her own well-being. Instead, Shea watched the group work to save Mark’s life, and then shifted her sights to the bloody carnage around them.
“Oh my God,” Shea uttered in disbelief. She had no other words. All she could do was weep.
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