When it happened for Tom, when the shots snapped the air and the crowd scattered and the adrenaline flooded his system, he was sure that this was it—the tragedy we spend our lives preparing for, practicing worry vicariously. After the protracted slow torture of the whole year prior, and its waiting for something to happen, some fatalistic part of him might have even rushed to embrace this definitive next disaster that promised to break the world open again, out of its stasis. Over the ensuing weeks, though, within him an insidious and somehow worse fear grew, that no moment was “it,” and never had been.
There was always that other proverbial shoe, suspended, potential energy denied the release of the kinetic.
On the last appointment on the last day before everything changed, Tom found himself to be failing Mikey the pit bull mix. It was not even a question of reaching and finding nothing there; he felt it more as a dim surprise at an inability to reach.
“Well obviously it’s not his fault,” his vet tech Sandy repeated back to him, as if he’d been stupidly suggesting the opposite, like Mikey could be responsible for his own misfortune. “But why not the shelter?”
“You know why,” he said automatically. A dog like Mikey would last exactly one week at the shelter, anxious and scared the whole time. “Why put him through it?” It had been a long day, and midway through the sentence he lost track of who he was putting through what and had to stop and mentally reassemble: he was the doctor. And here was his patient. And Sandy was not his conscience but his assistant.
Sandy had come with the practice when he bought it. In the fifteen years since, Tom had witnessed her battered by repeated trials: the death of one husband, the nasty resolution of another marriage, an older son who stole from her every time she let him back in, and a younger son with his own behavioral issues. She seemed to almost supernaturally return each of her own life’s successive slights with toughness and empathy, and always brought an instant rapport with their scrappiest cases, the most uncute and outwardly unlovable. Mikey was not even a stretch here, a charismatic and healthy guy who’d just drawn a bad hand.
“You know they have room,” she countered. “Pandemic puppies.” Mikey leaned in amiably when she scratched between his pointed docked ears.
“Except for people returning them,” Tom said. They had been overbooked for months, when everyone suddenly spending more time at home had decided to get a new pet at once. Then the tide turned the other way, and people went back to work. It happened, circumstances changed.
Mikey’s ‘appointment’ had been more of a drop-off, and the dog was plainly collateral damage of a divorce. Tom couldn’t guess whether euthanizing him was one party’s last stab at a merciful act, or a Pyrrhic act of revenge. In any case, Mikey was a grown dog with a pit face, poorly socialized and a long shot for adoption. “Sorry guy,” Tom said. Every day had started feeling like a new last straw, a numbing past what he knew how to take. He asked Sandy for the syringe.
“Tom?” she said, widening her stance and not moving. “They signed surrender papers.” She squinted at him. “Who are you? What’s happening to you?”
Tom dodged that hard question, rhetorical though it was. “If we’re talking less cruel?” he said back. “We might as well be doing a lot more euthanasias.” He had kept the clinic operational for emergencies and essential care, postponing the checkups and the electives, though the long months of lockdown. And now that things were supposed to be back to normal, it was full day after full day of appalling examples of neglect, owners who had dutifully stayed home while letting their pets suffer.
And suddenly half his practice had become ending the lives of animals he couldn’t help, or whose owners couldn’t afford the necessary treatment or referral. The people themselves seemed sheepish about it, which Tom resented, like they were still looking forward to walking right back into their own selfish lives. The animals had no idea, but it amazed him how people couldn’t even see themselves.
“All right,” Sandy declared. “Then I’ll take him home with me.”
Tom sighed, and looked up at the air. “You’re too good,” he told her.
“I’ll put these away,” she said, embarrassed, and hurried out with the injection. A moment later, her voice sailed up from the back of the empty clinic: “Shit!”
“Watch that shit-step,” he murmured, more to the dog than to Sandy. The two-inch raised sill had been there before he bought the clinic, and after this many years, any time anyone walked down the back hallway with their vision obstructed, or with the lights turned down, they kicked the obstacle and swore accordingly. Tom still caught it all the time himself, but only Sandy got to curse loudly and walk around furious about it.
She reappeared, still quietly swearing, now favoring one foot with a newly stubbed toe. “I’m serious,” she said. “Nobody else would stay open, this understaffed. We need another tech, two more assistants, half the volume.”
He could only nod. It was all true.
Mikey looked between them, guileless and rapt, and Tom scratched him lightly behind one ear. “Your lucky day,” he said, as if in benediction.
When he got home, the house was quiet, and he found Lynette in the small rebuilt barn where she kept her studio. More than anything else, this had been the singular reason they bought the house: the separate building had already been through several conversions from its original use, when the place had been a working farm. There were ruins and a foundation of a larger barn farther back, where thin woods encroached, but the surrounding fields had been sold off long ago to a corporate outfit that rotated soybeans and corn and timothy. Sometimes the man driving the tractor waved back when Tom was outside, sometimes not.
Lynette shuttled along her greenhouse wall and misting spider plants destined for an installation project. He stood in the open door for a moment, watching her, and letting the sun-warmed air inside mingle with cooler mud-scented late spring day at his back. Lynette stopped and peered at one plant and then another, arranging their shoots or pinching off one growing errant to her idea. She said she wasn’t sure exactly what she wanted this finished piece to look like, which Tom took as being simply unable to describe it; he could not fully grasp this kind of commitment to a project she was honestly going to let surprise her. How do you put so much work into something, hold it that close, and then let it grow away from your intent? It was the kind of question he’d ask earnestly when they were dating, one she would’ve tried hard to explain to him, then.
“So guess what,” he said, pitching it as a joke: “Sandy’s saying I should take some time off.”
“Sandy,” Lynette replied, “is a smart woman. You’re lucky she’s put up with you this long.”
He grunted. “You know, I got her paid every week,” he said. “And Shira too, that was equity out of the practice, not any subsidy there.”
“You’ve told them that, right?” she asked. “They know?”
“They’re aware,” Tom grumbled. Lynette had not fought him when he insisted on paying his meager staff their full salaries over the gap months between stimulus bills, but they had made the decision together to keep their home loan whole and refinance the clinic. It put the finish line that had almost been in sight another thirty years down the road, was all—now he’d be lucky to own the practice outright in time to sell it off and retire. “Anyway,” he said, knowing it was a flimsy excuse, “now that there’s business, and money coming back in? If we’re turning people away, they won’t come back.”
Lynette put down the watering can and turned. “And they’ll go where?” Her mouth twisted a little. “You said yourself, and I believe I quote, you’re ‘the only game in town.’”
“OK, and that is why,” Tom sighed. “I’m not even taking annuals,” he said. “Nothing routine, it’s all some degree of urgent.” He was explaining to Lynette nothing she didn’t already know, just venting near her now. “But what do I do? Do I tell the terrier who ate rat poison he shouldn’t have done that, I’m overworked? A collie that might lose its eye, any responsible owner would have had it seen weeks ago, but now they should wait a couple days while it goes septic because I’ll do better work decompressed?” Lynette listened, and he appreciated that, but his work was the opposite of hers: it made no difference how he felt as he did it, it was only the doing that mattered. There was no aesthetic craft to suturing a torn ear, only its immediacy.
“You’re offering referrals though,” Lynette pressed.
He nodded, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I mention it,” he said. “But when someone doesn’t have the money?” He shook his head in irritation. “You forget, Lynette, half the time my clientele thinks I’m making money off fucking heart worm pills, like I’m trying to upsell them or something.”
“I don’t forget that. I know you.”
She watched him, waiting, holding her mister in the air. “If you’re done?”
He shut his eyes, exasperated, then gave a brisk nod. “I am. OK. What’s going on?”
“Annie wants to go to the thing tomorrow morning, in town. If we—think it’s safe.”
He shrugged. “As anything else. Why not?”
“You should take her then. There’s, I don’t know, a graduating senior recognition day. And, some kind of street fair.”
“Oh,” he said. “A multipurpose community event. Will there be a tractor parade? Marching bands?”
Tired, but letting herself be drawn into it, she responded, “Boy-girl-cub scouts, and horses. High school girls in convertibles.”
“Horses go last,” he said. “For poop reasons. And you say there’s no culture.”
Her expression wavered, and he knew he was close to a nerve, but she just said, her gaze unfocused, “Full-on Americana. Norman Rockwell-grade shit, right there.”
“I’ll take Annie. And Jonah?”
Lynette gave him a what do you think? look. “He’d be online thirty hours a day if he could.”
“He’s a good kid though. We have good kids.”
“Sure,” Lynette agreed.
On his morning drive, he’d heard a fragment of a TED Talk on gene editing and designer babies, and it had left him feeling lucky, then, for the children they’d gotten purely by chance. Annie and Jonah were healthy, and good at most things they tried. But there was still the implicit flip-side: with both of them speeding into their teens, he had the ominous feeling of waiting for the jolt, the revelation of some inherent flaw that had gone unseen. What did it take, what kind of random event was enough to knock a kid off track? It made him fearful to intervene, in case of screwing up what was good. Thinking of “his family” at that moment felt like standing before one of Lynette’s ethereal sculptures of needles and dried grass, hands splayed to feel the shape of a delicate weightless thing it was impossible to touch.
“Relax,” Lynette chided him, poking his knee with one socked foot under the breakfast table. “You look like you’re in surgery.”
Tom blinked twice, willing the muscles behind his jaw to relax. He put a hand to his forehead, pressing with his finger and thumb to smooth the clenched furrows there.
“Sun’s out,” she said. “It’s going to be a beautiful day.” She was right: the table and his bagel and the braided rag rug on the floor were all awash in buttery sun, and outside, sparrows chittered and a squirrel twitched its tail in the maple tree. Lynette gestured with her hand holding her fork, as if to indicate and take it all in, and for just a second he saw her eyes fasten on her own movement, and he knew she was seeing the shape the shadow of her tines made. That was her, always ready to be fascinated by the visual, the space and the negative space, the play of object and texture and position. “So Azusa emailed,” she announced in a forced casual tone. “The galleries in Chicago are opening back up,” she said, watching her fork in the light. “Their schedules are—well they need to book shows.”
“There must be all this new work,” he said. “Like, backed up. But Azusa thinks she can get you in?”
She put her fork down and looked away, tastefully. “With the light how it is, I thought I’d take shots for a prospectus. I’m probably being premature.”
“No you’re not,” he said, his eyes drawn to the window behind her, where something was wrong with the squirrel’s silhouette.
“What?” she said, following his gaze, turning.
He gave a self-deprecating chuckle: she knew him too. “That squirrel,” he confessed. “It’s missing fur from its tail. I was thinking, a fight with other squirrels, or it’s got a mange.”
She looked, humoring him, but the ratty-tailed squirrel had skittered around the far side of the tree. “Not yours to cure,” she admonished.
“Dad?” Annie called then, just rounding down the stairs. “Are we going?”
And then she was there, standing at the table, their blonde daughter, eyes wide and bright, bringing with her a gust of warm moist air scented with some citrusy body wash straight from the shower.
“Sure,” he said agreeably, “when you’re ready. Is your brother awake?” He tore off half his remaining bagel and chewed, leaving the rest on the plate.
Annie sniffed. “I doubt it. He was online til like three,” she said, flipping her hair through a scrunchie. “What?” she asked. “I got up to use the bathroom.”
“He’s becoming nocturnal,” Lynette said sotto voce, and gave him a prodding look. “Should we…?”
Tom sighed and opened the app on his phone that monitored everyone’s internet traffic. “Huh,” he said. “Five-thirty am, actually. You want me to…?”
Lynette nodded, eyes shrewd, absurdly grave, as if she were a prison warden authorizing an execution and not just pausing their son’s wi-fi.
Annie looked between them. “He’ll just use his phone,” she said. “Or do that thing with the router. You had to call the cable company, last time.”
“Don’t need to worry about that,” he said.
“It’s a principle,” Lynette said quietly.
“Whatever,” Annie said. “So are we going?”
The day was warming already, and on the way into town he put his window down and drove slow, his left hand tapping the wind. “Mount Forest,” he announced, as they passed the village welcome sign. It was a standard family joke, how there wasn’t a real forest in the county, or a mountain for three hundred miles. He would say there had been forests once, and Annie or Jonah guess it was named like Greenland or Iceland, to trick settlers.
Annie sat in the passenger seat like she’d been thrown there, all knees and elbows. She was cupping her phone against the light. Tom heard the name Orrin Alexander, and a phrase that might have been ‘Nazi leftist agenda.’
“What are you even watching?”
“Nothing,” she said. “Just Rupert Bourgassio.”
“Rupert who-now?” Tom asked.
Annie flickered her eyelids, bemused, and said, “He’s a YouTuber. He only has like a million subscribers.”
Tom looked over passing fields, alternately brown and green in the sun. He could smell the newly turned earth. “I don’t know if I want you listening to that kind of content.”
“He’s just some kid,” she said. “He makes fun of everyone.”
“Hey tell me about your sign,” he said, and she obediently clicked off her phone and turned the poster she’d made to face him. He couldn’t make out her slogan while driving, but registered a detailed rendering of the planet seen from space, wreathed in thin wisps of white that looked textured. “I like the clouds.”
“Mom said it was a dry-brushing technique.”
“How do you do that,” he asked. “With a…dry…brush?”
She nodded. “Dad?”
“In some cities, they’re doing real climate change protests.” She looked at him. “I mean now that this one thing is over, it doesn’t make the bigger problems go away. Does it?”
He sighed. He agreed with Lynette, in theory, that they didn’t want to discourage her activism, but there was such a thing as discretion, too. “No,” he said mildly. “It doesn’t. But we live in a very small town. You know that.”
She gave him a complicated expression back, and the word that came to his mind was, performative: she flickered, indecisive, like stop-motion animation or a filmstrip played just a little bit too slow, so you could see the hitches between the frames. All of it gave him the strange sensation that his daughter was assessing him as an audience and modulating herself accordingly, an unsettlingly grown-up sensibility, but without an adult’s awareness to hide the machinations of her psyche. He got flashes of this now and then from her lately, more in the last year or two, and he saw it, the prehensile emotive ability that had won her the lead in every drama production since middle school. Part of it was self-assurance and her presence onstage, but he saw now how all of that macro projection was driven by the micro, the just-right set of the eyes and careful arrangement of expression.
His phone buzzed with a text then. Annie would be driving soon herself, and he was conscious of her watching, but he still contorted his hips to wrestle the phone from his front pocket. “Open that,” he said, handing her the phone, “and read me what terrible urgent issue your brother has.”
“Sure,” she said, reading, mock-impressed. “Urgent indeed. ‘OMG Dad call me ASAP.’” She let that hang, until her own phone buzzed. Then she said, a phone in each hand, “Wow: also Jonah. ‘Annie where are you going, don’t go downtown just please call me OK.’” She sighed and gave her father a wilting look, shaking her head.
“Turn it off,” Tom said, irritated. “I mean—you can mute mine. He’s all right.” If Tom responded on cue to remotely enable his wifi, what would even be the point?
“Well—do you want me to send him a reply, then?”
“No. Don’t worry about it.”
Main Street was blocked off already, and Tom parked behind the drugstore. Annie slid out and the two of them joined the loose foot traffic gravitating toward the town hall and the parking lot that served as the farmers market on summer Saturdays. A flatbed trailer was parked across the street as a stage. Events had already begun, and there was sporadic applause as high school kids walked across the stage one by one, blushing and flashing awkward waves, as someone recited their accolades over a PA.
There was a kettle corn booth and a few craft vendors, and the usual pony rides and llama-farm petting-pen were set up in the empty lot between the town hall and the laundromat. Tom remembered years and years of forking out five dollars apiece for his kids to ride the bored ponies in circles.
Now Annie looked at the animals disapprovingly. “You don’t think the ponies just hate that, Dad? I mean, it isn’t cruel?”
“Cruel?” he asked. “No, and I don’t guess the ponies feel much one way or another about it. They water them, they’re healthy.” He knew that farm: though they used the regional circuit large-animal vet for their routine stuff, he’d take calls now and then for an injured pony, or a llama with colic. He recalled the layout of their barns, and the smell of clean straw. It seemed like a responsibly-run operation.
Will Ellery stood in the road, ostensibly directing traffic and maintaining order, jobs that were mainly taking care of themselves. Tom almost addressed him as mock-formal Officer Ellery, before remembering it was Chief now. “Morning Tom.” He was sweating already, and ran one hand through his close-cut hair. In his utility belt and boots and reflective vest, he looked at least as burdened as the ponies.
Annie, deciding herself dismissed, gave a little wave and struck off to find her friends.
“Don’t you have a deputy for this?” Tom asked Will. With kids in the same grades, he and Will had sat through a town history’s worth of dance recitals and band concerts and swim meets and soccer games over the last ten years.
“I get first dibs on the exciting jobs,” he said, looking at Tom then away, oddly conflicted about joking on the job.
“Jesus,” he commented. “What, is the gun club having a pig roast after?” A motley militia of maybe two dozen stood in loose formation to one side of the street, opposite the pony rides and llama pen. Some were in hunting camo and mismatched military fatigues, and others wore loud Hawaiian prints. A couple held American flags, and Tom saw also the coiled serpent on yellow, and another flag he didn’t recognize, that looked like an igloo with palm trees. As far as he could tell, all of the group were men. There were older men in mirrored shades with expensive-looking semi-automatic rifles, and farm kids with hunting rifles, and the bearded twenty-somethings with holsters. “Used to be, you’d have the American Legion, carry their rifles in the Memorial Day parade, that’s it.”
Will lowered his mirror shades. “Where you been,” he said. “It’s their weekly demonstration.”
Tom did remember Lynette complaining a while ago, about rednecks with rifles setting up lawn chairs across from the town hall. It was the kind of thing she’d always been touchy about. It embarrassed him to have missed her comment about safety last night, as if he might irresponsibly send his child off to play in an armed camp. In a burst of misplaced obstinacy, he pressed Will about it now. “Weekly?” he asked. “So that’s where we are now, this is what’s normal?”
“Open carry,” Will commented. “And public assembly. They have permits.”
“Yeah, but,” Tom said. “You can’t exactly love it, personally. I mean, it doesn’t make your job easier, does it?”
“What do you think?” was all Will would give as answer.
There was a reverberating audio hum and a brief squeak of feedback as a hulking clumsy boy in a blond buzzcut and a varsity jacket took the mic on the trailer-stage. A hubbub of adolescent hoots and cheers rose and quickly subsided. “I wanna thank you all for coming out,” the boy mumbled.
Someone in the crowd made an inaudible crack, which drew a goofy smile from the speaker and a chorus of low laughter. Then a sharp scream split all the other noise with a purity unamplified by the PA.
A younger man with slick black hair was striding purposefully through the loose crowd on the street, making for the stage. “What’s he doing?” someone screamed inanely, and someone else yelled, “Hey stop that kid!”
The lines sounded canned, and his first absurd thought was that someone was staging a prank, or it was some kind of performance-art counter-demonstration. Annie wouldn’t be involved, he thought; disruptive civil disobedience had never been her thing. At the same time, if it the drama kids had planned something, it would be unlike her to stay out of it.
“Get away, he’s got a gun!” someone called, and Tom’s stupid, slow-brained first response was, Now that’s taking it too far. Sure enough, the black-haired kid held a handgun, trained on the stage, and there it came, yes, Annie’s distinctive projecting timbre: “Oh my god, please!” And something in Tom’s chest froze as he considered the possibility that she was not acting.
A unified reaction seized the crowd, people screaming and fleeing and wheeling as one body, like a flock of birds scattering and settling into separate trees. He was aware of the smaller gun rights crowd spinning and pointing, weapons raised, fully aware that their moment had arrived, poised, yet none of them acting first.
Tom himself froze in place, realizing only that he did not actually see Annie, and wondering by what failing his parental radar had not registered her proximity and location at all times.
There was Will then in his yellow vest, his service weapon drawn, pedestrians stumbling and lurching past him toward cover. The crowd drained quickly, disappearing behind the laundromat and past the confused llamas and ponies, leaving only those fallen and scrambling to regain their feet.
Tom made himself taller, searching for Annie, aware of himself as a target and accepting that,if he could be a distraction from his daughter. It all made sense for an instant, how spent he’d felt lately, how oddly relaxing it would be if it turned out that this was the one thing he could do, and then rest.
Then as if spotlit, he saw her, not running but on her knees, one elbow on the ground, petrified, her face quaking. There was her Earth Day sign, thrown aside, forgotten in the street. Behind her the boy with black hair falling over his face scrabbled desperately, lunging for something across the pavement, and then he rose with handgun again, his face contorted in frustration. He spun to the stage first, then finding it empty, scanned around him quickly. Almost everyone had taken cover. The gun owners had fanned out on the sidewalk, crouching and weapons trained, but the boy had given them no cause yet to act, Tom realized, and they were not going to fire until he did—deadly force was the only means at their disposal.
As the youth posed, anguished and in everyone’s focus, Tom realized it was Sandy’s son, Aiden. He wore a voluminous black sweatshirt, overly dressed for such a mild morning, and it made his torso look thick. He shrugged and pulled at his armpit uncomfortably, and he looked about to cry, and resolutely resisting it. He seemed to not see Annie, or to look past her, where she shied away from him on the dirty asphalt. “You motherfuckers!” he choked. “You sons of bitches!” Biting down hard on one lip, he fired a series of shots that seemed random, over anyone’s head. The snaps were crisp in the air, and glass tinkled from the town hall. The hail of takedown fire Tom anticipated didn’t follow, because Will stood in the way.
“Put it down, son,” Will called. “Just drop the gun right now.” Against the hysterical rabble and Aiden’s angst, Will sounded calm and authoritative: this was no doubt something he had practiced, trained for, lived a hundred times in his mind before today—though Tom couldn’t imagine he’d prepared for it in a crossfire situation, walking toward a gunman with a dozen unknown weapons trained on his back.
Annie was half-rising now, and impossibly, she wasn’t breaking into a sprint to get away, and he wanted to shout for her to make herself small, invisible, nothing. For once, to step out of the scene. Instead she was facing Aiden, reaching one hand toward him. She was speaking, repeating something like, “Don’t, you don’t have to.”
“Annie,” Tom said harshly, the word tearing his throat, as he stepped forward too.
Annie glanced up then, her expression frozen, and he thought, she doesn’t know how to act for this.
Will called for Aiden to drop the gun again, and the hand he was holding it in lowered toward Annie who watched as if spellbound. A single report seemed louder than the ones before, echoing now in the emptied street, and Aiden staggered backward and hit the ground. His face distorted, gasping for air as he lurched quickly back to his feet, straightening in a way that might have been to threaten Annie or to shield her. His arm with the gun swung ponderously without clear object. Tom’s mind lunged forward, followed agonizing slowly by his body, but before he could reach them, one more explosive shot shattered the air.
Aidan’s neck jerked and then his body crumpled, his legs holding him partly upright for a moment, and then he collapsed, sagging to drape across Annie’s lap, a sudden pietá. Tom thought, all his thoughts coming in snapshots like they might never flow normally again: they made that classic triangular composition, and it was the kind of thing Lynette would notice, if she were here. Next he thought, as Annie looked up at him with fresh tears about to spill over, she’s placed herself, found the proper emotion, and the fear that had paralyzed her was gone as she threw herself into the available role.
Five feet to his left, Will worked his lips soundlessly. He looked sick, and held his service weapon stiffly away from his body as he pivoted awkwardly, a compass needle wobbling toward north.
Following Will’s gaze, Tom saw Bud Carnegie emerging slowly from behind a car, holding a rifle pointed at the sky. Tom had cared for three generations of the Carnegies’ German Shepherds, and remembered when their son Chad had taken the football team to state, been recruited everywhere, and then destroyed his rotator cuff his first college season. Bud stepped forward and around the car now, bending stiffly to lean his rifle against the bumper and step away from it, his hands floating at his sides. The tip of his tongue touched his open lips and disappeared, and Bud swallowed visibly, a man bracing himself to bear a heavy weight.
The clinical part of Tom’s mind assessed the damage quickly. The killing shot had left a puckered indentation in the side of Aiden’s neck that bubbled with violent red arterial blood, now guttering to a lull. It had been Bud’s second shot, the first one to center-mass stopped by the ballistic vest under Aiden’s sweatshirt, and the second, by aim or by chance, striking just a little higher. There was nothing to put pressure on; Tom guessed the bullet might have found the boy’s spinal cord, since the chest was not moving, the lungs not even reflexively sucking for air even though the airway had probably been breached, the body effectively drowning.
He was left only to whisper to Annie, “It’s OK, you’re OK,” even though nothing was anywhere close to OK, as Annie tried to writhe away as Aiden’s blood darkened the fabric of her pale jeans. She stared at her contorted hands like a Shakespearean heroine, and Tom ticked off items of concern: was any of the blood hers, had she been hurt by a ricochet of the bullet, a flying shattered bit of bone? Was she in shock? She was terrified, certainly, but she not unresponsive: she recognized what she was looking at.
“Can you hear me?” he demanded, too close to her ear, too loud, and she recoiled and nodded.
Then Will was there, asking him if Aiden was dead.
Tom nodded. He was dead. There was no way to put that much blood back into a person.
Around them, people were already creeping closer, crowding near.
“Everyone stay back,” Will yelled, bent to one knee and hiding his face. “You all need to stay back please.”
Officer Sally came jogging up then, Tom had never been able to remember her last name, a big woman in her twenties, her radio and weapon and heavy belt banging against her hips. “Paramedics inbound,” she said to Will, eyeing Tom and Annie suspiciously.
“Is your daughter OK?” Will asked, as if just now remembering Annie. “Tom, is she hurt?”
And Tom wanted Will to be more authoritative here, not with this naked questioning like someone awakened from a dream, but something in him perceived the vacuum here and spoke assertively into it. “I’m taking her home,” he said, and Annie stood fully, shivering next to him.
Sally looked at Will and Will looked at Tom, until Tom added, “I’m refusing treatment on her behalf, if that helps.”
Above them, birds stitched across the sky, and a single starling screeched and chittered brightly from a power line. The sky shone, a translucent blue bowl gearing up for a beautiful day, and altogether the natural world was completely indifferent to the human drama unfurling in the center of Main. A block away, the yowl of an siren rose, and Tom saw the ambulance negotiate around the wooden barricade and then rock forward as it stopped. Diana Siler and another EMT were already opening the back doors, deploying a wheeled gurney and hurrying forward, capable and implacable, just as if there were anything that could still be done.
“Come on,” he said, and for once Annie meekly and gratefully let him pull her away. He couldn’t resist hurrying her with his arm to her back, suddenly desperate to get them both away to a place of safety, to take cover, to turn every corner and put every barrier he could between them and anyone watching, before the EMTs began their terrible routine.
He knew he wasn’t driving in what you would call a safe state, but the important thing was to get away, put some distance on it. It was a kind of prey animal instinct: a five-alarm imperative to flee, to clear the scene and show no weakness, before they caught some undefined predator’s attention. But there was no pursuit, they were OK, and Annie was not hurt, and he realized he was telling himself so, out loud, over the roaring in his ears.
Annie herself cowered in the passenger seat, her voice quaking: “Dad,” she said, “why are you yelling at me?”
“Because I’m afraid,” Tom said automatically, as he realized it. It was how he always reacted when one of the children hurt themselves, his first reflex not to comfort them but to vent his fear as anger. What were you doing? he’d demand of every scraped knee, every bike wreck and turned ankle. How did this happen?! Like he was furious at them for endangering themselves, allowing injury.
“I’m sorry,” he said now, “I can’t help it, it scares me, I know you didn’t do anything, I know you’re OK,” and it was like he was apologizing for every overreaction and emotional miscue in his life as a parent.
“It’s all right,” she sniffed. He noticed that she’d had the presence of mind, while he was peeling them out of town like a bank robbery getaway driver, to pull some napkins from the pocket of the door and start cleaning herself up. The fine lines of her knuckles and the edges of her unpolished nails still showed a rust-brown residue, like a wash—the opposite of a dry-brushing, something that clung to recesses, instead of bringing high points into relief.
Five years that felt like a single summer ago, Tom had convinced Sandy to sign Aiden up for soccer. He could be on Jonah’s team, he told her, and Tom would help with rides to practice. Sandy had finally given in when Tom gently asked what other activities the kid had going on, leaving unsaid the harder thing, that Aiden was home alone after school every day Sandy worked—or, worse, not alone, if his brother was there.
It was true that Aiden had needed—something, some external structure to his life, and not just the physical activity. He’d been a pale youth, with unruly black hair over his eyes that had only made him look sheepish then, and not like an emo juvenile delinquent. Tom remembered his face in the rear view mirror, a shy smile and a readiness to try anything, but from the games Tom had seen, Aiden just wasn’t athletic.
By that time, Jonah’s team had been playing together for a few years already, and had begun settling into specialties and positions; Jonah played a lot of midfield at that time, with enough speed to win open balls, but lacking the power for long crosses or shots on goal. Aiden was behind by years on the basics, and stayed on the bench in close games, and filled space on defense when it was a blowout.
The other kids had little patience for Aiden. Tom saw him get up from a vicious slide tackle at one practice, grass-stained but unhurt or not showing it, and unsure whether he was allowed to be angry. When Jonah helped him up and offered Aiden water out of his own bottle, Tom felt proud: Jonah was a good kid, someone was raising him right. He saw himself in the boy, possibly projecting, but still, he’d hoped then that his son would never lose that compassion, that impulse to help the helpless.
Now, at home, facing Lynette and Jonah in the driveway after Annie had fled wordlessly into the house, Tom knew he had to speak, to tell them what had happened. “Sandy’s son,” he said, foundering, looking for Jonah’s eyes. “You remember, Aiden?” he started.
And it struck him then, out of nowhere: Dear God, was it upon him to tell Sandy? She had no one to insulate her, and if not from him she’d hear it from Will. Tom froze, and wanted to hide from the obligation, no matter how cowardly, and wished desperately he’d never thought of it, that the idea had never occurred to him.
“Dad,” Jonah was saying, jolting him from his thoughts. “Dad, I know,” he said.
Tom looked up. After a beat, Lynette wheeled to run inside after Annie. Why had they both been standing here, anticipating their return?
Jonah fidgeted, practically vibrating with an unstable energy. He hadn’t asked what happened. He’d said, I know.
Standing there, half in the driveway and half in his weedy yard with dandelions spreading in patches of deeper green and unbudded nubs, not yet burst open into their lush buttery yellow, the car door hanging open and chiming behind him where he’d parked askew, Tom felt numb, like if he didn’t look too closely at anything, didn’t ask any questions, none of it would be real. The sunlight fell on his shoulders with the angle and intensity he knew Lynette loved, and he thought, she was missing it now, the best opportunity to take her pictures, she was wasting the light.
If he kept his head tilted up toward the roofline, the treetops near the creek at the back of the property that were just starting to blur with the fine green fuzz of new leaves, the swifts and blackbirds and a high vulture wheeling out beyond that, he wouldn’t have to look down and see his son, planted squarely between him and the house, but there Jonah was, folding and unfolding his arms self-consciously. “Dad,” he said.
Tom had no words to make him stop talking, to make everything stop, for now.
“How did it happen?” Jonah asked, his voice catching. “Did people get hurt?”
Tom looked around desperately, at anything else. He wanted to stop hearing, and Jonah kept putting himself in his gaze: his pale feet, fidgeting on the rocks, the black sweats and T-shirt he slept in.
“When you paused my internet, it muted my Discord server. When I saw what happened, I hacked and rebooted the modem config page,” he said, neither boasting nor apologetic, just stating the fact. “By then, I had this whole pileup of messages from Aiden.” Jonah’s mouth made strange shapes for a moment, like he was chewing and tasting the words he wanted to say next, and finding none of them exactly right. “He told me not to go downtown,” Jonah said carefully. “He said he was going, and not coming back. He’s—he’s dead, isn’t he?”
And Tom’s speech finally returned to him. “Stop talking!” he gasped. “Who else have you told this, and how long have you—” His son peered at him, penetrating, waiting for what he needed to know, and Tom said, “Yes, I mean, yeah he—he died, I’m sorry. He did, he’s dead.” Pleading, he started to ask Jonah how much more there was, hedging around words like ‘implicated,’ but then he broke off that angle, not wanting to know, telling Jonah only that it was over, there was nothing he could do or could have done, but now it was important not to speak any further about it. And how could he explain, he was only trying to protect him, that he knew how it worked, and in a small town like theirs it took nothing to become ‘the shooter’s friend,’ a would-be co-conspirator, a target of suspicion? How many texts, how many chat-room logs were out there, and what did they say?
His phone interrupted him, buzzing insistently until he thumbed it open. Half a dozen messages were accruing, splattered with hearts and tear emojis, Thoughts and prayers for your daughter, and Poor Annie! Hope she’s OK and Text if there’s anything we can do.
“Dad,” Jonah said insistently, and when Tom looked up it was like his son was trying to speak around something stuck in his throat, his Adam’s apple working as he swallowed. “What about—anyone else? Was there anyone else?”
“What?” Tom asked, wanting to make sure he understood what was being asked. “Was anyone else, what?”
Jonah looked around as if ready to cringe, afraid of the answer he was going to get. “Did Aiden hurt anyone else?” he asked carefully, enunciating his words so he’d only have to say them once.
Tom studied him for a moment, and Jonah bore it, tensed and not breathing. “No,” he spoke then, his mind going back to Annie, who had been right there, how easily it could have been her too, her first. “It—it was just him.”
And before flashing to relief, for a second Jonah looked wary, as if something did not add up, or Tom was keeping something from him.
Tom looked toward the house, opening and closing his hands fretfully. Lynette was inside, talking Annie down; this was how they parented, splitting off to deal with things one on one before bringing it all back to the family. Lynette would need more time with Annie, and it was on him to resolve more with Jonah. Somehow outside felt safer for that conversation, a neutral territory where his son might speak freely.
“Cassie needs her walk,” he said, reaching for some task, anything. “Come with me.”
“I’ll get shoes,” Jonah said, uncharacteristically acquiescent.
They barely entered the house, Jonah stepping into the first pair of sandals he found, and Tom keeping one hand on the knob of the open door, pulling Cassie’s leash from its hook, and clucking softly to summon the dog.
Cassiopeia put her nose to the ground and began trotting glibly down the drive, and Tom fingered the leash he carried only for ceremonial purposes, because the dog seemed anxious without it. Cassie was a hopelessly neurotic Irish setter, quite possibly a show-quality purebred, but someone had found her in a field years ago and brought her in to the clinic, starving and craven and thrown into paroxysms of fear by the smallest things, a jingle of heavy keys or the flash of low sunlight on water. He’d brought her home temporarily, until it became clear that her issues made her problematic for a regular home. Lynette had been in a low, doubt-filled period in her career, and had too much time with both kids suddenly in all-day school; she had taken to cooing, “This one has special needs,” and would spend hours with her hands moving, brushing the dog’s glowing auburn fur or picking burrs from it, the way he imagined an older woman might sit knitting. Cassie was still snappy and aggressive around other dogs, which was why he hadn’t thought to bring Mikey home himself.
Now Tom was using her intentionally to diffuse the tension, the dog giving him and Jonah a plausible focus besides each other. Under the pines, when they were away from the house, Tom asked carefully, not sure which word to emphasize, “Do you know why he’d warn you?”
“Well I guess he didn’t want me to get hurt,” Jonah said calmly, in a voice stripped of sarcasm. Then his composure fissured, and he added, “I didn’t know it was going to happen. If that’s your next question.”
“I know that,” Tom assured him. “I’m just trying to figure out where it could have been coming from. With Aiden.” He stopped, his shoes crunching in the gravel. “In case there’s—anything we need to protect you from.”
Cassie kept trotting stiffly along, her nose to the ground and her tail waving, half-raised, but Jonah stopped to regard Tom squarely. “Like what?”
“Anything you could get in trouble for, legally,” Tom said. He looked ahead to the dog, and posed a new different question into the gap, quickly. “Did he—talk about violence?”
Jonah’s eyes wavered and a faint grimace appeared and cleared, the same expression when he’d been little that adults would adore and call so serious. Now he looked to be wavering between words heavier than he knew how to say, and Tom wanted to coach him to be appalled, to distance himself from his friend, to disavow everything.
“Are there records out there?” Tom asked. “I don’t know, chat logs, with you in them? Had he—made threats?”
Jonah’s face hardened then, something resolved for him. “People say fucked up things,” he said.
“OK,” Tom said. “Fucked up how?” he asked, hoping the obscenity would ingratiate him, place them on the same side.
Jonah regarded him suspiciously. “Look, he wanted to scare some people, I think. And he was angry. But he didn’t want to die.”
“What was he angry about?” Tom breathed.
“Nobody expected he’d do anything,” Jonah said bitterly, and sniffed.
Tom wondered, and who was ‘nobody?’ but before he could form the words to that thought, Jonah was pointing at Cassie. “She’s got something,” he said, and he saw that Cassie had picked up some object in her soft mouth, turning her head away to hide it.
Jonah jogged toward her, and Tom released his line of questioning for now, presented instead with the simple but grisly task of prying the long-dead jerky-like remains of some chipmunk or squirrel from the dog’s jaws.
It was unspoken that he would rendezvous with Lynette in her studio, which though it was not necessarily private, constituted a kind of demilitarized zone from the house.
The last owner, a photographer, had put two big skylights in the roof of the former barn and knocked all the holes in the walls for windows that he could. You could see all the way to the highway, under a wide expanse of sky with hawks circling. On a dark day when Lynette had to make her own light, her workroom on top of the hill shone like a lighthouse, and Tom could watch her moving back and forth like a figure in a snow globe.
Now he imagined Jonah and Annie watching from the house, and it made him conscious of his body language. “I didn’t know how to press him more,” he said, “without it turning into, I don’t know, some kind of inquisition. I feel like, I didn’t get any real information.”
“It’s not about information,” Lynette reminded him. “We need to be showing support. Listening.” She reached with a folded bit of sandpaper to smooth a patch on a head-sized plaster orb. Her sandpaper whispered, generating puffs of soft white dust. She stepped back, and blew on her work.
“I guess,” he said, knowing that once again, they were and were not talking about the same problem. He wanted to solve a problem, and she was concerned with their role to perform, their emotional stance. “How’d it go with Annie?” he asked.
Lynette answered simply. “Well I’d say she’s pretty fucked up,” she said. “It’s going to be a lot for her to work through.” She shook her head and slumped onto a hard-backed chair, giving up on working any materials in the room that her hands could touch.
He knew her conversation with Annie had been one of affirmation and shared assurances, nothing like his undeclared interrogation of Jonah, where his protective fixation on information had precluded anything comforting he might have said. Tom eyed the other chair in the room, an old recliner, its upholstery splattered with paint and stain. He stayed standing.
“What will you do at the clinic?” she asked him. “I mean, you’ll have to shut down, won’t you?”
“I can’t do that,” he said automatically.
She looked at him quizzically. “Without Sandy though? You were overloaded already.”
“I have assistants you know,” he said. “Kammie and, and, Kimmy. And Shira’s been amazing, you know that.”
She made no effort to hide her raw skepticism. He’d told her himself how the high school girls were barely reliable for cleaning up, and his admin Shira was more virtual than in-person lately.
“Well I can’t just, not go in,” he burst. “I can’t just not take patients if I’m a little burned out, if it’s a little harder to manage. You know the situation, ‘only game in town.’” Months ago, over the winter, an unexpected sore spot had surfaced when she’d pointed out how unsafe it was running on so little sleep, how he could misdiagnose something, or put his car in a ditch, or head-on some kid on the road.
“You know who’s burnt out?” he’d spat back at her then, “Actual human medical staff. It’s a pandemic and I’m not pretending anything I do is that essential.”
“That’s not what I said!” Lynette had protested. “I wasn’t saying anything like that.”
“And what,” he’d said, still fuming, “I’m the same kind of hero, if I’m too tired to pull one more rubber band out of a cat’s butt?”
He’d glowered at her until she burst out giggling, and then he did too.
Now he just sighed and waved a useless gesture in the air. “The ad’s still up,” he said. He’d had a help-wanted post for another certified vet tech on the statewide message board all month. The qualified pool in the surrounding counties was nil, and he couldn’t pay enough to attract someone from out of state, but who knew, maybe he’d still get a call from the odd candidate who wanted to be here for their own reasons.
“Should we ask Annie and Jonah to pitch in?” Lynette asked. “Could be a chance for them to get out of their heads a bit.”
Tom shook his head. Though the kids had grown up completely comfortable in his clinic, and were accustomed to him bringing home the occasional sick puppy or cat for observation, there wasn’t that much they could help with. A year or two ago, Jonah had even amazed him, the way he knew how he knew how to gently touch a dying dog, but that was part of what he wanted to shelter them both from a little longer, anyway. And the other part, the unqualified manual labor, the constant disinfecting and cleaning up all manner of vomit, diarrhea, and urine: that work required someone with a goal, paying their dues and getting experience toward a career. Asking it of his kids would be the fastest way to make them hate it.
“I called Sandy,” he said. “Just for, I mean, condolences. Can I tell you?” he said, asking Lynette now, his vision thickening and his sinuses beginning to buzz, “Can I just say, how glad I was to get her voice mail? That she didn’t pick up? And does that make me a shit of a person?”
Lynette gave him a soft look. “She understands you care.”
“None of us are dealing with anything that matters, compared to her,” he said. “I’ll go see her tomorrow.”
That night, when the last rattles and flushings and creaking floorboards had settled and the kids were quiet in their rooms, and the old house itself had found its position for the night and ceased its tapping and shifting, Tom felt Lynette’s hand on his back and knew she was awake too. Her hand didn’t want anything; it was just her way, absently probing the nubs of his vertebrae and the unprotected alternations between his ribs, testing him like he was a medium she might set to molding next.
“Will’s coming in the morning,” he told her. “I forgot to tell you. To take statements.”
“Whose?” she asked, her hand still fretting along his spine.
“I guess mine for one,” Tom answered. “He said statements, plural.”
“Annie’s then? And not—both of theirs?”
He held his breath for a moment. “Annie was there,” he said. “I think, he only meant Annie. But—I asked Jonah. If there’s anything we need to know. To protect him.”
“I know. You said.”
“I mean that’s always where they look first, isn’t it? The shooter’s friends, their text messages, their online conversations?” Tell me I’m being paranoid, he knew he was asking. Any more would be admitting he was capable of harboring suspicion about their only son. He went on, feeling defensive: “Normal kid stuff gets inflated, in something like this. I was trying to do the responsible thing, is all.”
After their walk with Cassie, Jonah had disappeared to his room. At dinner he had frowned into the air over his plate, unresponsive, barely present. Lynette had squeezed his shoulder and told him, “When you want to talk, sweetie,” and left it at that.
Tom knew that he should be as unconditional in his support.
Long after Lynette’s hand stilled along his spine and her breathing slowed, Tom lay sifting evidence, counterbalancing memories against each other.
A week or a month ago, Jonah had been in the kitchen, staring into the open fridge, when Tom answered the landline phone. “Good evening technical support customer,” an accented voice said. “My name is Larry, how are you tonight?”
“Who are you trying to reach, Larry?” He’d signaled Jonah. Lynette disapproved of him even taking these calls, but she wasn’t here, and Jonah was, ready to be amused.
“We have red flags coming from a computer in your home,” ‘Larry’ informed him. “You have been infected with a virus, but do not fear, I will help you to fix it.”
“Do you like your job?” Tom interrupted. “Is it worth it, what you’re doing to people?” He waved one hand for Jonah to close the refrigerator door.
‘Larry’ remained on script. “Are you near your computer now?”
“Sure,” Tom said, “I’m sitting at it.” He leaned back against the counter, crossing his free arm over his chest.
“Are they asking for your root file?” Jonah asked under his breath. “Or is it just credit cards?”
“Neither yet,” Tom mouthed, and put the phone to his chest, bidding Jonah go on.
“So there’s this thing you can do,” Jonah said shyly. “With a virtual machine on your computer. It’s like a firewall, so it looks like they’re inside your system, but they can’t really make changes. And you make a bait file, like faked to have all your passwords or blockchain account or something, except it’s a ransomware .exe. So when they steal that, and they download it themselves—” Jonah trailed off, lighting up devilishly at this. “I mean it’d disable their whole system. Lock them out. Maybe crash their network.”
Tom let Larry keep talking, a soft buzz by his collarbone. “That’s clever,” he told Jonah, “but a little more evil than what I’m after.”
Jonah tilted his head, acknowledging.
“Did I tell you about this girl, from some call center in Topeka?”
Jonah’s smile staled a little. He’d heard this one. “Extended warranty, on the van?”
“Maybe,” Tom said. “I forget. But the point is, I talked to her for twenty minutes. Asking her how she ended up with this job, what it was like. And what she felt she was contributing to the world, and what she really wanted to do instead.”
“Sure,” Jonah said, impatient. “Questioning her life choices.”
“Well she might have!” Tom said. He’d overtold the story, played it out as a teachable moment, but he was committed to it now. “When it seems like someone’s a terrible human being, that’s probably not what they chose. They’re just, reacting to things in their lives, you know? You can still, see them as people.” Deep down, he’d always believed if he could pin someone down long enough, grill them and find out what really made them tick, it was possible to swerve them toward good. And even if he was wrong, it seemed like a noble lesson to try to impart.
Jonah said, unimpressed, “If you ever change your mind? Let me know. I can show you, how to do some damage.”
“Are you there, sir?” came the voice from the phone. Larry was waiting. “Hello?”
Tom wanted to tell Jonah that, born to different circumstances, it could be him on some phone bank in Bangladesh, farming credit card numbers for a meager paycheck. But the empathy he’d hoped to instill wasn’t sticking that day, and it had disturbed him instead to see their son as ethically malleable—a young person with flexible morals and disturbing technological ability.
Now, lying awake, hoping to know his own children struck him as tragic, and laughable. Here was Annie, redefining herself daily, trying on temporary personas—but at least she was transparent, broadcasting her curated emotions as they occurred. Unlike her, Jonah was a cipher, a murky lake that gave back no reflection and could conceal anything, just beneath the surface.